Symposium Introduction

If a subtitle makes a book’s biggest promise, Henry Staten’s Techne Theory offers a gargantuan one: nothing less than “a new language for art.” It delivers, but only by making an argument new because it is also so old, so appropriately primitive in the context of contemporary literary and art criticism. The language of techne, Staten claims, has been lost in the wake (or tide) of Romanticism’s guiding ontologies of creation and creativity, individual genius, and inner life. The loss of the techne standpoint has led to several mystifications of what art actually is. The first thing to know, then, is what a techne is (and, following from that, where we stand when we take a techne standpoint on art, and what we achieve in doing so).

Put in Staten’s simplest form, “Techne is just practical know-how of any kind whatever, no matter how sophisticated” (4). For the ancient Greeks, including Aristotle, techne links arts like poetry or sculpture or painting to all kinds of practical know-how: pottery, carpentry, hunting, and so on. They are all arts in a certain sense, and it is this sense in particular that the techne standpoint aims to capture. Each archive of know-how, which evolves throughout the history of the particular art, is encoded in the span of the acts and tools that put a given techne to use. Staten calls the social development of a techne an inscription, “the accretion or sedimentation of myriad acts of trial and error and micro-discovery that come together over generations,” incorporating “the know-how that has been accumulated by generations of anonymous artisans” (10). Already one sees how the techne standpoint brings an art down to earth: from the heights of the great individual to the anonymous and forgotten artisan and from the fineness of the fine art to the craft of any technical and practical labor whatsoever. And in doing so it pulls the critic back from the end of a process, from the beautiful, outstanding, special, or even just successfully-made object, through the drift of its formation and all the attendant knowledge and technique reserved in the techne put to use by the artists and practitioners involved.

So if taking the techne standpoint on art is a methodological formalism, the forms in question are neither detached or detachable from the span of an event of making (Staten is not interested in forms conceived as generic eidos transferrable without remainder from one text to another, imposed on malleable matter like stencils) nor are they wholly internal to singular objects or texts as their unrepeatable texture. Techne theory’s formalism is an evolutionary one, a goad toward a scale of critical attention that can place individual formations—works as made things that were considered “done” at a particular stage in their making—within a developmental cultural history of “technosocial design space” (183). A small corner of nature’s evolutionary designs, TDS refers to the logical arena of human-made forms, which when viewed through time can be seen as a cultural history of making it new (in Pound’s famous if dangerous phrase) through that which can be joined.

“Finding join” or “fit,” in Staten’s terms, is an early stage of constructing form, and it is a kind of practical materialism, since it requires laboring toward a goal of successful formation by plumbing the real, ontological limits and affordances of the available materials one might use (188). The consistencies and plasticities of paint, for instance, or the sonic properties of words. Or, to marshal a scholarly metaphor that perhaps should be re-literalized, the wood’s grain. Reading against the grain is a critical technique with its own convoluted history, but for anyone working with wood, flippancy about the direction of its grain comes with a series of inevitable costs. Going against the grain, in that case, would seem less like audacity and more like amateurism. But even making this analogy runs the risk of over-intellectualizing all aspects of techne-labor. There is always a dialectic of entrained knowing-how and conceptual knowing-that at work; successful craftsmen learn how to make the two work together. A lot of this finding and doing happens without much reflection, through a wholly non-mystical feel for the grooves embedded in material reality. When you get good at something, you offload a lot of reflection onto the body, which works semi-automatically, at least until a new problem arises. Solving those head-scratching problems, at first intractable, are typically the most celebrated moments in the history of a techne. But what appear to be the great leaps in the history of an art or craft, the brilliant technical advances, in fact depend conceptually on all the unheralded and even conventional work of those who are simply good enough. (I recall, from my teenage years, misguided jokes at the expense of baseball star Manny Ramirez, who said too much thinking gets in the way of hitting baseballs. He was not wrong, at least if “hitting baseballs” refers simply to the feeling or movement in which all the player’s training clicks into place, the act wherein an immense amalgamation of craft-knowledge comes together in the fluid grace of a smooth swing.)

At a brute level, all the materials artisans work on (paint, morphemes, wood, celluloid, tones, curveballs) are physical things or members of physical processes, and so correctness in practice—the dreaded evaluations of rightness that many of us are embarrassed to perform—cannot be written out of our judgments, certainly not the artist’s. And it follows from the act of taking the techne standpoint that critics follow the maker along the path of conceptualizing, scanning, selecting, fitting, and manipulating materials in a task-oriented process of finding what works (which also means discovering what does not). Except the critic, who enters the scene at the end of the process, walks this path in reverse. Staten’s readings, then, seek to reverse engineer the works he selects. Considering those selections means taking heed of an obvious but important truth: Staten, as theorist-critic, is working in and through a techne too, though he does not thematize art and literary criticism as such in that way, at least not in depth. I suppose that’s our task, here, now, only in response to this work of scholarship, this addition to the evolution of our collective practice and profession. That is indeed what the contributors to this symposium do, in part, though there is much in Techne Theory left unprobed for now. Hopefully, by way of our consideration of Staten’s intervention, we can gather criticism into the orbit of techne theory where it implicitly resides. And we can recognize, as if by a parallax view, artworks as both products of technai and materials in their own right through which we find and make new forms: forms and methods of interpretive work and evaluation that respect the objects as made things and as embodiments of the virtual potentialities archived in the evolving handbooks of human culture.

There is also the matter of art and literary history to reconsider: how might taking the techne standpoint alter the terms of those narratives? What scale does the history of a techne privilege? If the history of a techne proceeds, like a Kuhnian paradigm, slowly and anonymously for long spans of time until it is revolutionized—albeit, on Staten’s terms, through leaps that are in fact adjacent to extant design possibilities less capacious artisans rely on at any given time—it would seem as if our histories must balance the relevance of both processual speeds to where we stand now, taking the techne standpoint in our critical present. Staten chooses to focus on exceptional figures, both critical and theoretical (Plato, Aristotle, T. J. Clark, Heaney and Valéry in their roles as poetic theorists) and artists as artisans (Picasso, Marioni, Kafka). But one of the radical implications of techne theory is that it offers the Wölfflinian possibility, perhaps the most compelling yet, of histories without (or at least not primarily about) names. One can imagine (and in some cases return to) histories of specific techniques, gestures, figures, or tropes that select examples on bases unfamiliar to most contemporary scholars. Simply conceiving histories of technai opens us up to the choices we make when doing our own work—the scales we focus on and the parts of a work, genre, or oeuvre we isolate and narrow our attention toward—decisions and selections often made on autopilot or for reasons extraneous to the craft-logic of our studies. What makes for adept or adroit criticism qua criticism (and not qua something else)? Techne Theory lights the way toward answers we must give and give again, by way of writing.

Derek Attridge (“Techne and the Question of Invention”) opens our series of responses to Staten’s book by asking whether techne theory can account for contingency in the evolution of art forms. There is something small but important, Attridge claims, in the excess of invention over mere technical “correctness” that an account of the artisan’s searching movement through design space downplays, something that might not be genius but is more akin to surprise than aptness or fit, to the figure of the leap rather than the adjacent. Audrey Wasser (“Techne Theory Inside and Out”) then considers the materialist basis of techne theory, one she sees as ultimately non-teleological. This leads her to ask where criticism fits in his account—perhaps there is no telos here either, since Wasser and I both wondered without consulting each other—and whether Staten implicitly psychologizes the dynamic, distributive, but still spatial relationship he establishes between the “inside” and “outside” terms guiding his theory of material creation.

Walter Benn Michaels (“Scare Quotes”) draws our attention to Staten’s claim that “the hunt for interpretive ‘meaning’”—those are the first scare quotes at issue—is “the main barrier” to understanding art as techne. Michaels argues that Staten’s account in fact needs meaning, and that making a distinction between the intended and unintended effects of a work (where meaning “names the intended effect” of the artist) is necessary if we are to take the techne standpoint at all. Finally, Nathan Brown (“The Myth of the Romantic Myth and the Place of Poiesis”) focuses on Staten’s critique of the Romantic myth of creative spontaneity and its critical afterlife. By claiming that what Staten calls Romanticism is “a misreading of what was misread”—that is, his account acknowledges how neo-Romantic views of poetry get Romanticism wrong while also keeping those errors as part of the definition of Romanticism—Brown suggests that Romantic theory does in fact afford a complex understanding of techne and the related mediating (and equally foundational) concept poiesis.

Derek Attridge


Techne and the Question of Invention

Henry Staten’s Techne Theory is a major contribution to our understanding of the practices of art. It’s a powerful challenge to the Romantic conception of creativity as the mysterious operation of some ineffable power granted to fortunate individuals, and a reminder that works of art (including what is customarily segregated as “decorative” or “applied” art) could not be produced without the operation of a richly-detailed cultural inheritance from earlier generations of artists. By marshaling arguments from several other disciplines and analyzing particular artworks Staten not only illuminates the practice of artists but invites us to adopt a new perspective on the whole cultural phenomenon of art, one that places the engine of artistic creativity not in gifted individuals but in the entire, constantly changing, array of passed-on skills and knowledges that he terms techne. (Not surprisingly, he has little time for post-Duchamp conceptual art.)

There are many aspects of this book’s argument that invite further probing, and I’ll have to concentrate on one set of related issues. At the heart of any account of the production of art in Western culture is the question of inventiveness or originality. The testimony provided by what we now think of as “works of art” from Ancient Greece to the present shows that their makers, whatever the discourses and cultural norms within, and by means of which, they worked, have consistently striven to produce artefacts or events that introduce new forms, and through these new forms, new kinds of experience for the viewer, listener, or reader. These fresh possibilities in their turn open new doors for other artists, at the same time closing old doors—artistic routes no longer available for exploration. (Most instances of original creation, of course, open no new doors; only what Kant called “exemplary originality” changes the landscape for fresh inventions.)

This demand for, and achievement of, exemplary originality is discussed in several places in Techne Theory. (Although Staten refuses the distinction between “art” and “craft,” or “fine art” and other arts, the importance he attaches to the creation of original artefacts seems to imply that some version of this distinction is still operative in his thinking.) What we call invention, he tells us, is really discovery, a comment that recalls the role of inventio in classical rhetoric. The artist deploys skills of brain and hand absorbed from frequent engagements with related artefacts to select among the range of possibilities the one that seems “right” to her. (I’ll come back to this question of “rightness.”)

Staten’s final chapter, drawing on the work of Daniel Dennett on evolution, provides a fascinating way of thinking about this process. Staten’s version of Dennett’s conception of Universal Design Space operative in biological evolution is the unthinkably large number of possibilities for further elaboration of existing models potentially available to an artist at a given time and within a given cultural context. Only a very few of these possibilities are viable, and the skilled artist, as the inheritor of generations of techne development, is able to detect one of these and follow it through to completion. The task of the artist is made a little less forbidding by the fact that only a relatively small number of possible avenues are adjacent to the existing set of forms; and it is this notion of adjacency, Staten asserts, that “provides a formal model for how invention happens” (185).

I find Staten’s account very appealing: it tallies with the reports of many artists in different fields that the successful work “came to them” rather than being created by them; it provides an explanation for the sequential development characteristic of Western art as each generation of artists exploits the array of possibilities made available by their predecessors; and it renders the act of invention a little less mysterious. It also raises several questions and pathways worth pursuing.

One of these questions is this: Is the historical sequence of new forms in Western art a matter of inevitable evolution or was it only one of many possible histories, dependent on which pathways artists happened to choose at particular junctures? Is there a role, that is, for contingency? Staten describes the increasing realism of Madonnas painted by Duccio, Cimabue, and Giotto as an “inexorable movement” (186), and, in an appealing series of metaphors, talks of “constellations . . . pregnant with the force accumulated from the history of the culture that has brought it to this moment, . . . trembling with the potential for actualization” (187). Such descriptions minimize the creative activity of the artist, whose task is only to perceive those possibilities just beyond the threshold and invite them in. There is little space for either contingency or bold leaps of the imagination.

The example Staten returns to at this point, having introduced it earlier in the book, is of Picasso and Braque initiating the Cubist revolution after seeing the Cézanne retrospective in Paris in 1907. Cézanne’s late paintings, he notes, enabled the younger men to perceive the possibilities adjacent to the point they had reached in their own work, and thus to unlock a new realm for an entire generation of painters (185). Another example of the inexorable movement of art, it would seem—yet Staten insists that “Cubism was not the working out of an intrinsic teleology” (21). He also complicates the idea of inexorability by speaking of the role of “serendipity” and of “friction with a real world context” (185). And we learn that “nothing dictates . . . that a viable form, once actualized, will survive and thrive; this is an entirely contingent matter” (186). There are too many viable design possibilities at any given moment “for any one design to force itself into actuality” (187).

This apparent contradiction between inevitability and choice is perhaps the product of the power of hindsight: although Cézanne’s late paintings opened up several possible new paths, the one that Picasso and Braque chose to follow—or found themselves following—was so successful that in retrospect it looks like the inevitable next move, just as Cézanne’s work looks like the necessary consequence of Impressionism. But there is no way of establishing how many other successful roads could have been taken at each of these junctures; we have records only of those that were taken and failed (where we have records of these at all). Occasionally, an artist will return to an earlier period’s art and develop it in a way that didn’t happen at that time: think of the Pre-Raphaelites’ turn to the painters signaled by their group label, or the exploitation of Gothic forms by an architect such as William Burges. Staten might argue, however, that the new directions taken by these artists were available only because of the accretion of certain techne skills in the intervening period, and thus were closed to the earlier artists.

These uncertainties about the emergence of innovative, field-changing works are reflected in Staten’s account of the individual’s experience of bringing a new work of art into being. His target is the notion of “genius,” or the ascription to certain individuals, and certain creative acts, of an essentially ineffable power, going beyond any mere application of rules or enactments of inherited skills. Kant is one of the most significant progenitors of this view, although related attitudes to artistic creation can be traced back to the appeals to the Muses by Homer, Hesiod, and many later poets, and to the conception of the sublime as outside the realm of rules sketched, and contested, by Longinus in the first century AD. Staten makes more than I would of Kant’s insistence that, although genius is the wellspring of artistic production, taste—which Staten equates with form and hence techne—is necessary to keep it within bounds; few proponents of the concept of genius would object to this qualification, which doesn’t take away from the centrality of the concept to Kant’s understanding of artistic practice.

Having dismissed anything like genius to account for the artist’s discovery of new possibilities, Staten needs alternative metaphors to describe this process. He tells us that “the inventive thinker feels a kind of potential stirring in this already existing architecture” (31); and “new forms are created by the effervescence of old forms” (118). The artist who experiences this stirring and effervescing allows the “cunning” of techne to bring about the creation of new configurations (11–12), as the form’s own dynamics “become the leading factor” (190). Eventually, the artefact feels “correct, according to the prevailing techne-standard” (37) or “is right, where rightness is a matter of at least potential agreement in judgments by the relevant techne community” (151).

Several questions arise from this account. What is the relation between those few potentially correct possibilities and all the others? How does the realization of such a possibility produce the feeling of rightness, and achieve recognition as right by the community? And why does this experience of rightness so often seem to involve a simultaneous experience of surprise? It’s a paradoxical combination familiar to the readers, viewers, and hearers of artworks as well: the never-before-apprehended that at the same time feels exactly right, perhaps even familiar (though it may take a generation or two before this happens.) Even though what is brought into existence by the artist is entirely new, to produce that feeling it must be related in some way to what already exists. But what is that relation? My suggestion would be that such achievements involve the bringing into being of ways of thinking or feeling, formal properties, or areas of human experience, that had hitherto been excluded—and excluded not arbitrarily but because some aspect of the status quo depended on their exclusion. The inventive artist is one who has an inkling of what has been unnoticed—perhaps because its marginalization has produced tensions, fissures or limits in the status quo—and finds, often through trial and error, a way of articulating it. This would explain the double experience of surprise and aptness; it would also account for the altered landscape produced by the inventive artist, creating a new set of possibilities for his successors (and new exclusions as well). Staten comes close to this position when he suggests that Picasso and Braque might have felt at the Cézanne exhibition that the latter’s painting “implied . . . if only negatively” their own development of it—a development he is happy to call a “leap.”

But why could Cézanne not see where his innovations in painting might lead to? I’m not sure what Staten’s answer would be, but it may be that the abrogation of any sense of perspective was unthinkable to the painter, since it would undermine the most basic principles of painting as he understood them and on which his work depended. Yet his late paintings show the strain entailed in keeping this further step at bay, a strain observed, and exploited, by Braque and Picasso. One could tell the same story about the introduction of abstraction in the visual arts, or atonality in music, or of free verse in poetry—or, for that matter, of the third actor in Attic tragedy or of a vanishing point in Renaissance painting.

To argue in this way is not to disagree with Staten’s account of the possibilities in design space or the notion of adjacency; it’s to ask for a more detailed account of how invention happens, and a fuller recognition that the introduction of the genuinely and productively new into the world of artistic possibility is more than the achievement of techne correctness by the skilled artisan—perhaps only a little more, but a little that makes all the difference. The testimony of countless artists points to an experience less amenable to explanation in terms of good design principles, and the testimony of readers, viewers, and listeners suggests that being surprised, pleased, and moved by a work of art is more than a matter of being impressed by the skill of the technician. Staten is right to hack away at the accumulated mystifications around ideas of creativity and genius, but there may be more to be said about the reason why these ideas have taken such a strong hold.

  • Henry Staten

    Henry Staten


    Response to Attridge

    I’m grateful to Attridge for his insightful anatomy of my argument, as well as for the questions he raises. He is concerned with the sheer newness of inventive art, and with the artist’s role in bringing it forth, and he wants me to clarify how art-making can go beyond mere “techne correctness” in this process. The answer I give in the book is derived from Rilke: that it if the artist sticks to techne correctness—or, as Rilke puts it, “remains within the ‘well done’—the work itself will “exceed the artist.” However, “correctness” must not be understood as simply working according to a set rule; set rules are primarily teaching instruments by which newbies are introduced to their techne. Once trained, an artisan “can do what he has not been trained to do,” as Jacques Perriault says.

    I “dismiss anything like genius” as the factor that goes beyond mere correctness only in the sense of genius defined as a mysterious, self-caused, faculty of creation. We perceive some work as so exceptionally fine that we need a name for that degree of fineness, and I don’t mind keeping genius as that name—but under a new definition.

    I never deny that for Kant transcendent genius remains the superior partner in art-making; I argue that Kant, apparently unwittingly, undermines the privilege he assigns to genius when he restricts it to the job of creating material (Stoff) for art, and assigns to taste (in my parlance, techne) the job of imposing form on this Stoff. From the techne standpoint, Kant has it backwards: it’s the imposing of form, not the “creation” of formless materials, that makes someone an artist. Thus, on my reading, when Kant ascribes to taste the job of form-imposition, he implicitly acknowledges that taste, not genius, is the superior partner in art-making. That doesn’t mean that the material-inventing faculty that Kant calls genius isn’t essential as well; of course it is. But, as my chapter on Valery explains in detail, inspired generation of formless materials is only a prerequisite for the actual form-bestowing art-process.

    The fear that techne reduces artmaking to something “merely mechanical”—some echo of which I detect in Attridge’s call for the exceeding of “mere correctness”—derives from the eighteenth-century, clockwork sense of “mechanical”; but we need no longer think in terms of a simple creative/mechanical antithesis, because we can conceive of complex “mechanisms” that incorporate considerable indeterminacy—a sort of “non-mechanical” mechanism. This only sounds paradoxical because our minds are stuck in an outmoded notion of what a mechanical process is, one that has long been left behind by quantum physics, computers, and complex systems theory. Technai are complex systems with non-linear internal dynamics, capable—when operated by skilled and talented practitioners—of generating new patterns in a way that is neither quite aleatory nor quite determinate. There is an intrinsic “magnetism” among the combinatory of elements constituting a techne-system, and “genius” on this model can be reconceived as an exceptional sensitivity, a “feel” or “touch,” for the pathways or “lines of force” through the field of combinatorial possibilities made available by a given techne. This intrinsic magnetism (noted by Poincaré, Valery, Heaney, and many other inventive thinkers) enables new thoughts, new combinatorial possibilities, to leap, unbidden, into the mind or fingers of skilled practitioners. Such magnetism, and the sensitivity to it, are visible even in such a sub-artistic skill as punning, which is closely linked to the skill of making rhymes. An inveterate punster (and rhyme-maker) like Shakespeare automatically hears possible puns everywhere in a system of language sounds. For such a person, hearing “June” immediately attracts “spoon” and “moon” and “loon” into consciousness. This magnetism is a form of the more general phenomenon of association, which is fundamental to human learning and to skills of all sorts. Association is, of course, mechanical in its local functioning, but because of the imponderable number of possible combinations available to it (which I conceptualize as Universal Design Space), it is largely random, and requires the artisan’s ability to discern the best combinations and to put them together in the best way, an ability that involves awareness of pre-existing models of high quality (Kant’s “taste”).

    Attridge argues that artists since Greek times have “striven to produce new forms,” but I’m not convinced this is the most accurate way to describe the art-drive or art-practice. Was newness as such an aim for Giotto, or even Shakespeare? Isn’t newness just our modern way of thinking of quality, of the strong impression that exceptionally well-designed and executed work makes on us? A previous age referred to the essential quality of outstanding art as a je ne sais quoi. Lorca thought the best art—at least in the genres he favored—emerged from a struggle with the spirit of the earth, which he called duende. There are many such conceptions; but all of them are underlain by the aim at making things in the most excellent way—however that way might be defined by any specific tradition of art-making. This produces newness when the conditions favor it, not when the artist wills it. In the presence of such conditions, much new work is produced, by many artisans, and we have “golden ages” of art; when conditions don’t, no amount of aiming at the new will produce much of significance. Think of the legions of artists who have pursued originality in the modern period, with nothing to show for it—or even the amount of middling work produced by the most illustrious artists.

    Phenomenologically: say I write something, and it’s well formed, but I feel that it has no life, or not much, that in writing it I’ve fallen back into the well-worn rut of the easily or “mechanically” done. I go back to my desk and keep working my techne-material until it “comes to life.” I’m not aiming at newness per se, I’m feeling for the coming to life of my material. So the potter turns the potter’s wheel, gauging how the clay feels to the hands, adapting their pressure to how the clay responds, feeling for the potter’s “groove” as a blues musician feels for a rhythmic groove. The potter’s “feel” for the rightness of her touch is a product of, on the one hand, her incorporation of her techne through practice, and, on the other hand, of the material qualities of clay and wheel—which have also been shaped by techne (by the skilled activity that chose the right kind of clay, that mixed it with the right quantity of water, designed and built the wheel). One potter lacks the touch, another doesn’t care when the result is less than optimal, a third has tasted what the optimal feels and looks like and won’t stop until it’s achieved, throwing away attempt after attempt; but when success comes, if it comes, we might be awed by the perfection of its curve. The “groove” is the interface between the techne-guided agency of the artisan and the agency of the material. One can think of working the groove quasi-mythically in Aristotle’s way, as the awakening of the forms that are latent in matter; or in the equally mythical (I call it “meta-theoretical”) way I propose, as the actualization of lines of force in Universal Design Space, the abstract space of all possible combinations of the elements of forms. Perhaps the result will be a perfect exemplar of an established art, with no macro-innovation of form, as a blues band plays a blues classic every night, and one night it lacks a spark, another night it rocks the house. Same notes, same musicians, but now it acquires a life that other times it lacks. As a single artisan can work her material repeatedly and produce only generic product, yet occasionally achieve a significant innovation of form, so whole generations of artisans can labor over a form that remains static, until the moment comes when the context shifts sufficiently to allow the effervescence of the old forms to produce something new, out of the same basic activity that had remained static for so long. Attridge thinks of this moment as the opening to something that has been “excluded,” but it might simply be a change in social relations, or in material conditions, or the discovery of a new tool or material, or new knowledge (such as of the principles of perspective), or a moment of “inspiration,” with inspiration conceived as a moment of heightened perception of the system of lines of force within which one works—or even, and perhaps quite often, an accidental discovery, as Bob Marley is said to have discovered the reggae rhythm.

    Think of the fundamental stasis of ancient Egyptian art for so many centuries, which yet produced so many breathtaking exemplars. I’m as moved as much, and more consistently, by the delicacy of their lines as I am by the best modern art. I presume these artisans were not striving for the new in the modernist sense of newness, yet each instantiation of the static style had to be newly achieved, just as the blues band has to newly achieve the same song each night. In both cases it’s done not by striving for the new or the excluded but by working the groove. Of course it’s also possible to aim for inclusion of the excluded; we see that a lot today. But that’s a special case, not the rule of art-techne; and it doesn’t guarantee newness any more than does any other technique. On the contrary, it just as easily becomes a well-worn rut (as opposed to a “groove”) of the easily done.

    I think the demand for originality in our time has been deeply destructive, not only of art, but of the psyches of those who feel its force but don’t realize that the new is achieved only by mastery of techne and the persistent working of the groove (by someone, of course, who also has an exceptional aptitude for that particular techne).  Fortunately, professionals in ever realm know from this from experience.  I was pleased to see in a recent documentary about prominent rappers how intense was their emphasis on craft. 

    Finally, Attridge notes my remarks on the “inexorability” of certain emergences, like that of Giotto or Cubism, and stresses the role of contingency. There’s no telling “how many other viable new paths” might have been available, that for contingent reasons never emerged. I entirely agree; but with the proviso that the feeling of inevitability (which is, indeed, “an effect of hindsight”) in certain artistic emergences—in Giotto, T. S. Eliot, or Robert Johnson—arises from our perception of how deeply rooted in previous work such emergences are. The number of possible alternative paths that might have been followed is severely restricted by this requirement. The most impressive artisans are those who create the impression of inevitability on a hindsight impressed by the historical depth at which they allowed the intrinsic dynamism of their forms to operate. Cezanne and Cubism were manifestly attuned to the possibility-space of contemporary painting in a way that a whole community of practitioners could recognize and benefit from. It’s this deeply rooted and widely resonant nature of Cezanne’s achievement that makes it look like part of an “inexorable” historical evolution.

    But all techne-bets are off if historical contingencies intervene. Historical events can wipe the blackboard partly or completely clean, opening radical new possibilities and erasing deeply rooted ones that were formerly viable.

    • Derek Attridge

      Derek Attridge


      More on the question of the new

      I’d like to thank Henry for his careful response to my comments. (Now that the symposium is live I find I can’t refer to my old friend and co-author as “Staten.”) I concur with so much of what he says in clarifying his understanding of artistic creativity that I find it difficult to continue in the vein of disagreement. I acknowledge that my description of the artist as “striving to produce new forms” is badly phrased; I have always emphasized the dual nature of the creative process as reported by so many artists, involving, as it does, not just active manipulation of the materials but a willingness to be surprised by the emerging forms, so I shouldn’t have implied that the goal of artistic work is innovation. Rather, innovation is what happens when an artist working creatively with the materials of the art form (which include the materials of thought, memory, knowledge, conceptuality, and so on) has the skill and good fortune to find the new work coming into being. What has been called “genius” consists in part in the ability to recognize when the inventive, singular, pathbreaking moment has arrived.
      Not being privy to the mental world of any artists, I can’t say what conscious goal is predominant as they manipulate those materials; I suspect there is a huge range and perhaps no common denominator. But Henry’s description of the process whereby the skilled artisan fully in command of the techne of her art is works intensively with the material until she senses some new possibility emerging is an appealing one, and tallies with many accounts by artists. Where we do part company to some extent is what it is about the new creation that registers on the sensibility of the artist as right at the same time as new, as ready to go out to the world as an intervention in, or contribution to, the accepted ways of seeing, thinking, and feeling. The artist may be mistaken, of course, but if not, that sense of rightness is something the audience of the work – or those people attuned to the kind of work it is – will experience as well.
      Thinking of this question from the audience’s point of view, I would like to revive the old distinction between the experience of what has traditionally been called craft – the enjoyment of the evident skill in an artefact and the beauty (for want of a better word) it has produced – and the experience of art – the alteration or expansion of one’s affective/cognitive grasp of the world, the being taken by surprise, that happens fairly rarely but is surely what we value most in our dealing with artistic creations. The one group of figures on an Egyptian tomb wall that pierces with its captured grace, or the one netsuke in an exhibition that goes beyond extraordinary craftsmanship to move as well as delight: it’s in accounting for these experiences that I find techne theory falling a tad short.
      I believe there is still some mileage in Collingwood’s discussion of the art/craft distinction, particularly the argument that craft involves a separation between planning and execution, while art does not – the artist, unlike the craftsperson, doesn’t know in advance what the artwork will be, or whether one will emerge at all. (No doubt the one process sometimes turns into the other.) I’ve just watched a documentary about Bridget Riley, whose work might seem very calculated in advance, but this is exactly what she says: I don’t know where I’m going when I start. There’s no necessary correlation between the way a work comes into being and the way it is received, especially when this involves a transfer across very different cultures: the Egyptian painter and the Japanese netsuke carver may have made those particular works with a clear pattern in mind, like all the others. But in the tradition within which Henry and I have been schooled, the likelihood of a correlation is much greater.
      Whether or not this distinction – which is, of course, far from clear-cut or fixed – is acceptable, the question of what constitutes the sense of rightness when the fully-achieved work comes into being, and when such a work is received by an auditor, reader, or viewer remains. Henry’s description of this process is marvelous: the elements of the techne-system have an intrinsic “magnetism” that “enables new thoughts, new combinatorial possibilities, to leap, unbidden, into the mind or fingers of skilled practitioners”. But just what this magnetism is remains obscure. And of course it’s not just new thoughts and combinations that are produced by the fine artist; it’s thoughts and combinations that have that feeling of rightness for creator and receiver, that unite, to quote the mathematician G. H. Hardy on a beautiful theorem (since the creative moment we are talking about is not confined to art), unexpectedness and inevitability. Why it is impossible to predict the coming into being of a great artwork and yet, once it is in existence, so hard to imagine it as not having come into being? (This is the feeling of “inexorability” about Cubism Henry refers to.)
      It’s this conundrum that leads me to think in terms of the “excluded”: the new work, since it creates the experience of rightness, must have some relation to the existing material, emotional, and conceptual configurations that constitute the subjectivity of the artist and the culture he is an embodiment of. How exactly does the new artefact relate to the world it is new to? I’m not sure that the simple extension of those existing configurations is enough to explain the experience we’re talking about; extension could happen in a million directions, most of which would not yield a work of art (Henry adopts Dennett’s Universal Design Space to articulate this situation). If, however, the new creation is felt as making good an absence (that had not been felt as an absence), fulfilling a need (that had not been felt as a need), bringing into being a way of thinking, a formal possibility, a perspective on some ingredient of human experience, that had been excluded (without awareness of that exclusion), it will be felt as right and inevitable – as well as surprising.

    • Henry Staten

      Henry Staten


      Reply to Attridge

      Derek, I would say that the (creative) devil is always going to be in the details, and that the details are not, and cannot be, qualitatively determined by planning, regardless of the tradition.  Two painters can make portraits in the same style of the same face, and one will glow with life and the other rest dully on the canvas.  In TT I call this “the artist’s touch,” and locate the point of emergence of the new primarily here, where the artisan’s hand interacts with its material in the moment and intuitively chooses the right or superior move.

      As for inevitability—that’s not a concept I put much stock in.  I understand it as a subjective response by someone whose own particular path through design space (whether as artist or as audience) has left them at the same locus in design space as that which the artist who made the work, so that one’s sense of rightness fits hand in glove with the maker’s sense.  But no work of art is strictly inevitable, as they might be in mathematics, because mathematical design space has much more narrowly defined parameters than art does.  In the realm of art this inevitability is an illusion, because there are too many possible paths through its design space for the actualization of one of them to be inevitable.

      The sense of rightness is a different matter.  Neither art nor techne theory are possible without it.  The sense of rightness is the subjective correlate of the spontaneous tendency of the constructive elements of a techne to come together, their “magnetism.”  Apprenticeship to a techne is the process of learning to perceive, and work with, these spontaneous tendencies of work-materials, considered as combinatory elements of a techne-system.

      The idea of such a magnetism is a recurrent feature of accounts of the creative process, and seems indispensable. It’s indisputable that technai as embodied in our psyche-somas operate according to some self-organizing dynamic, a magnetism or affinity for each other of their constitutive elements.  Of course no such affinity can be posited outside of the powers of a techne embodied in an artisan, and in the final instance in the entire body of practitioners of that techne.  So, for example, the parts of a jigsaw puzzle are designed to fit each other to form a coherent whole, and the more skilled you become as a puzzle-doer the more readily you perceive the affinities of pieces; but without your skill-informed perception, the pieces will just lie there in a jumble.  The affinity of the combinatory elements of a techne for each other exist because they’ve been designed into them by the whole history of interactions between practitioners of that techne and their materials; they exist as potentials to be actualized by skilled exercise of the techne.  Such affinities might also have come into existence for accidental reasons, such as the existence of rhyming words, whose “natural” affinities are exploited by the techne of a rhymester.  On a more complex level, we might think of the poets who honed the Homeric tradition, the way that the Parry-Lord hypothesis as developed by later analysists shows how the tradition had developed a vocabulary of formulas with a variety of metrical values that the oral composer could spontaneously slip into the proper places in a given line, on the spur of the compositional moment.  Something related to this apparently happens in the Rap tradition, creating the possibility of spontaneous rapping that is called “free-styling.” This process of historical honing of the “shapes” of combinatory elements is characteristic of all technai.  Such honing is what, at least in “progressive” periods of the evolution of a techne, increasingly smooths the way for practitioners of later times to build more and more sophisticated artifacts. The basic point to keep in mind is that there’s nothing mysterious about the magnetism in techne-combinatories; it’s there because it’s been built into the system in the evolution of the techne.

      Exactly how the combinatory potentials of a techne-system will be actualized in a specific case will be a result of the quality of the individual artisan’s “feel” for optimal fit among its elements. This seems to me as far as theory can go in explaining rightness, because in order to know what constitutes the rightness of a particular move by an individual artisan we would need to get into the specifics of that particular techne, excercising our own feel for it, a feel that, if not identical with the artisan’s feel, needs to be at least capable of paralleling its results.  So this is where criticism takes over from theory. It’s fruitless to ask for a conceptual explanation of feel at the point of contact between individual artisans’ hand and their specific materials; this is the point at which concepts or mental plans interface with, and might, to a considerable extent, give way to, the particularities of the real.  At the point of contact, the real has a major say in determining the quality of the feel, and we can’t characterize the feel independently of that contact with the determining force of the real—a contact which is always going to be, in the final analysis, of particulars.

      In general, I resist the distinction between art and craft because I don’t see why it’s necessary to posit a categorical distinction when a merely quantitative distinction would do.  If a work “moves as well as delights” us, as you put it, I’m satisfied to see that as a product of exceptionally fine craft.  Positing a higher “art” quality seems to me driven by what the anthropologist Alfred Gell called our culture’s “ideology and its quasi-religious veneration of art objects as aesthetic talismans.”  And if the ascription of this quality depends on the nature of our response to the work, then we’re thrown back into a subjectivistic criterion, and one that is very variable, not only from onlooker to onlooker but within ourselves from period to period of our lives, and sometimes even from day to day.  It’s true that the only access we have to the aesthetic quality of objects is through the character of our own individual response (as even Kant admitted), but such responses are clearly a matter of a great number and variety of contingent, largely “socially constructed,” factors.  I see no reason to think that the farmer lost in admiration of his brand new green John Deere tractor is having any less an aesthetically valid experience than I am when I’m looking at a nice Rothko. (There’s a lot more to be said on this comparison than I have room for here.)  I have only a modest feel for the beauty of machines, but it’s strong enough to make me feel the continuity between my emotional-intellectual response to a beautiful machine and those of my responses to made objects that are culturally sanctioned as “aesthetic.”  The tractor has a practical use, but people also collect exemplars of beautiful machines—a tractor, a vintage automobile, a particularly well-designed rifle—and keep them on display, unused, simply as objects of admiration.  Conversely, human beings read novels or listen to music or go to the museum for amusement or to soothe our nerves, or, in the traditional “humanistic” way, to make us feel like members of the cultured class.  All these responses we spontaneously construct out of whatever background we bring to the experience.  The farmer brings his sense of the tractor’s ability to do marvels of work smoothly and efficiently, and I, perhaps, bring to my perception of the Rothko a sense of the tormented abstract expressionist’s psyche, which lends a special pathos to his colors.

      Rothko’s psyche gets left out of the techne account, but when we abstract the techne of the painting from the biography of the painter (as well as from the cultural ideology that glorifies an indefinable something we call art) the difference between painting-techne and tractor-techne ceases to be the abyss that the art-craft distinction posits.

      I learned from Wittgenstein that conceptual muddles that involve thinkers in endless, irresolvable debates are typically seeking answers to muddled questions, and the question “what is art” is one of these.   Thinking in strict techne-terms is a way of clearing the conceptual ground so that clearer, more answerable questions can be formulated.  It’s not an answer to all questions about art, it’s “propaedeutic” to asking better-formulated questions.

      I don’t understand the attachment to the honorific “art,” and think we’d be better off without it, for reasons that partly overlap with the problem of class “distinction” in Bourdieu‘s sense—but only partly, because in the U.S. the pretentious bourgeoisie that is Bourdieu’s target barely exists.  Yet the ideological cachet of Art persists.  I have the impression that the Academy Awards ceremonies have over the years gotten more pretentious about what they do, more inclined to glorify their honorees as creators of Art.   Why not just think of work that, as you say,  “goes beyond extraordinary craftsmanship to move as well as delight,” as a yet higher degree of craftsmanship? What’s the point of a categorical distinction?  Our delight is a very variable factor, varying not only from individual to individual but from day to day or decade to decade within the same individual, or from age to age of a culture, but the quality of the craftsmanship remains.  I’ll say more about this below.

      I have as often been as profoundly moved by certain works of popular art, as I am by the greatest art, but have had to recognize that my response was something specific to the way I was “constructing” it emotionally and imaginatively, and someone who didn’t construct their own response in this way wouldn’t have a comparable response.  My “reading” was deep enough to endow the work with the power to move me in this way. I used to think that this showed that my construction was the superior one, but I’ve gotten over that particular piece of narcissism.

      Of course, if by some chance enough other people somehow arrived at a similar construction of such a work as mine, and so developed the same libidinal investment in it, they could have a comparable response, and then the work might be canonized as Art.  And this canonization might be short-lived, as I imagine the canonization in certain quarters of the Harry Potter books or the Star Wars movies will be, or it might last a long time, depending on the social-historical context.   On the techne approach, the art-phenomenon is the total thing, not anybody’s or any particular group’s response to a work but the dynamics of the entire techne-system, beginning with the history and structure of the particular techne as an aspect of Universal Design Space, and then extending out into the ever-changing social networks of interpretation and emotional response that either keep the work alive or condemn it to oblivion.

      Neither the artist’s experience, nor the viewer’s, nor the size of the approving audience, nor the length of time the concatenation of approving responses lasts; they’re just slices out of the larger dynamic system comprising the entire social context of making and reception, itself inscribed within the continually changing socio-historical dynamics of the culture within which the “artworld” exists.  (I highly recommend George Dickie’s The Art Circle for the best account of the “artworld.”)

      Everything about art is, in the final instance, a matter of the total socio-historical context; but part of that context, the most enduring factor and hard core of human reality, is techne.  That’s why the primary locus of value must be on the side of making rather than that of reception.  This, as I first learned from Luckacs, is the birthplace of valuation.  These moments of subjective response to a work, by either maker or viewer, are just glints of light on the moving surface of this whole context.  These experiences, these feelings of rightness or wrongness, whether conceived as newness or not, are all we have to go on, either as makers or as viewers, but they vanish into thin air unless they somehow concatenate with the responses of others, concatenations that can be more or less extensive, and more or less long-lasting.  And whether such concatenations occur depends as much on social conditions, including things like capitalism and marketing strategies, as they do on anything “intrinsic” to the work. Of course we as literature professors have a major say in what gets preserved and propagated, at least among the college-educated; we don’t influence huge numbers of people, but we and our predecessors going back to the monks of the Middle Ages have kept many things alive for centuries that would have faded from view, or completely ceased to exist, without us.  Conversely, popular literature can gain a huge readership and great admiration without our help, and then disappear within a couple of decades.  But both of these phenomena can be mapped as pulsations of Universal Design Space. The only thing that persists (given physical preservation of some sort) is the quality of the craft, which can lie there silently across ages and then perhaps be rediscovered.

      I am, by the way, beginning to explore the possibility of a dynamic multi-dimensional digital representation of the shape and dynamics of Universal Design Space.

      Techne theory isn’t designed to explain any mysteries.  It’s a conceptual model that allows us to place what we already know about art in the most comprehensive way, so that positions that when considered in isolation look like they contradict each other, on this model turn out to be simply different regions of the model, all operating according to a larger dynamics that includes them as moments.  So, for example, we know that a fairly pure reader-response theory, one that makes poems products of the interpretive process, can’t be the whole story; but we also know that theories that claim a poem’s qualities are intrinsic to it can’t be, either. we know there’s no pure “objectivity,” independently of the nature of the cognitive apparatus; but we also know that subjectivity can’t be pure self-relation or what Derrida called “self-affection.”  Our best model of objectivity is science, and even that is dependent on the “paradigm.”  So, as Kuhn showed, it all comes back to human practices, in this case the technai of science, which include paradigms and test tubes and dials registering the impacts of electrons.    So the strongest definition of objectivity, to the degree that the term has any use, is that which can be attributed to the labor process (of which the scientist reading his dials is part), defined in Marx’s way rock-bottom as the process by which human beings extract their means of survival from the body of nature.  This is objectivity in a pragmatic sense, the sense that if our perceptions and actions don’t match the character of the physical reality we’re struggling with, they will fail and we will die. All other notions of objectivity are necessarily subordinate to this one. The labor process is where human reality interfaces with natural reality, and where the sciences were born; and techne is the essence of the labor process.  I wish everybody would read Lucacs’s chapter on labor in his Ontology of Social Being to understand how this works.  The closest we can get to an “objective” sense of a poem is to understand the labor process by which it was made, in terms not of the quantitative expenditure of labor-power (though this could be a field of study as well) but from that of the techne by means of which the specific kind of work-skill of each poet is constituted.

Audrey Wasser


Techne Theory Inside and Out

Techne Theory gives us an account of art as an essentially social, historical, and institutional phenomenon, one in which socially inscribed practices are the true makers and practical know-how the real stuff of inspiration. In this view, artists are not geniuses but skilled problem solvers; judgment, not genius, is responsible for aesthetic form; artists do not differ fundamentally from carpenters or farmers; process is not severed from product but remains inextricably legible in it. On all of these points, I find Staten’s arguments deeply convincing. Originality is overrated, at least for a discourse of knowledge about art.

The perspective of techne theory is, in important ways—though not in every way, as I will come back to later—a materialist one. And while Staten doesn’t use the term in this book, nor set as his goal an explicit alignment of his theory with existing materialist traditions, there are resources here that strike me as indispensable to any future attempt to account for artistic production from a materialist perspective. These include Staten’s strong rejection of a romantic theory of genius; his focus on labor as an ontological fact; his views on extended, embodied mind; and his insistence on the material inscription of all human practice. All of these contest the idealist view of art as the product of individual will, especially where will is taken to be an idea or mental image of something to be made, will as a kind of blueprint. The crucial question at stake here is whether the formal cause of a work is ideal or material, and Staten seems to lean toward the latter option, especially in his discussion of form as functional optimality and hence as a kind of power. The most important aspect of Staten’s contribution to a materialist argument, though, in my opinion, is his treatment of creation as materially constrained and yet radically open. As he sees it, artistic form arises out of a dialectical struggle with existing tools, techniques, and raw material; and yet this struggle is guided by no image of an end, no representational teleology.

Staten’s anti-teleological stance has affinities, in particular, with a non-Hegelian materialist tradition. His book calls to mind another work drawing on this tradition, Pierre Macherey’s major and still underappreciated Theory of Literary Production (1966). Perhaps surprising to those who know it only by its title, Macherey’s book does not begin with claims about the nature of literature as such, but rather with questions about the nature of literary criticism. His approach highlights the fact that a theory of art production is also a kind of production in its own right, a theoretical production, or what Althusser called a mode of theoretical practice. In contrast to Macherey, Staten says very little about the practices of theory, philosophy, or criticism—the very practices he himself is engaged in.

This leads me to wonder: Is a theory of literary or art criticism compatible with Staten’s account? Or is criticism by nature too reflective, too idealist? Is it possible to write a techne theory of critical practice? With the opening lines of his book, Staten draws an emphatic distinction between maker and spectator, making it clear he will adopt the standpoint of the maker: “Artists don’t think about art the way non-artists do. Critics and audiences view art as finished products, to be appreciated and interpreted; an artist sees a work by another artist through the eyes of a fellow art-maker, as a made thing, and tries to discern how it was made, how its materials were worked” (3). What, then, is the best use of a techne theory of art for the critic, we might ask? Staten seems to suggest that the critic should try to install herself in the position of the maker by “reverse-engineering” the production process, perhaps by reconstructing the invisible combinatorial—the set of possible choices—that, Staten argues, confronts the artist as she works through “a series of techne-guided decisions” (20). Staten draws largely on Daniel Dennett for this part of his argument when he writes, “A creative agency . . . is . . . a kind of ‘search engine’ that combs a specific possibility-space looking for useful bits” (30).

Yet reconstructing a “possibility space” does not feel like what Staten actually does in his readings of Picasso, Marioni, or Kafka. This is probably for the best, because it seems wholly uninteresting to me to spend time considering what Picasso, Marioni, or Kafka did not do, or the choices they did not make, the number of which Staten and Dennett describe as “vast,” though not quite infinite (181). I’m reminded of my former clarinet teacher who once told me, no doubt interrupting some excuse of mine, “I don’t care about why you are playing it wrong. There are an infinite number of wrong ways to play this piece, but only one right way, and that’s the one I care about.” The number of possibilities may be vast, infinite, or even very small—my point is that there is something about the notion of possibility as such that is just not interesting or useful for a consideration of actual artworks.

Let’s look at what Staten does do in his readings, beginning with his treatment of Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis,” one of my favorite chapters of this book. It’s an example of what Staten’s deconstructive commitments make possible, as his reading works to show how certain narrative effects are produced by linguist details acting in conflict with one another rather than in concert. In Staten’s terms, his reading “doesn’t try to reveal the ‘meaning’ of the text, but, rather, the way the text creates effects . . . by means of a system of interacting devices” (159). Staten shows how Kafka’s techniques draw on nineteenth-century realist conventions while also laying bare or distorting those conventions. In particular, Staten describes an ironic effect produced at the level of “narrative design” (172); and it’s useful to recall those literary-theoretical accounts that characterize irony as a figure of disjunction (de Man) or interruption (permanent parabasis, as Schlegel called it). On Staten’s account, Kafka’s irony results from a mutual undercutting of “the interior and the exterior narration,” or from a “play of inside and outside” (162).

The emphasis on a “play of inside and outside” is interesting here because these are exactly the terms operating in Staten’s discussion of T. J Clark’s Picasso. In this earlier chapter, Staten describes Clark’s reconstruction of the artist’s thirty-year development from his Cubist period to what he was able to achieve in Guernica. By studying a number of Picasso’s works and drawings arranged in a series, Clark is able to construct a narrative about the way windows became increasingly important to the Cubist interiors, and about thresholds as a site of experimentation. Guernica ultimately emerges as Picasso’s technical solution to a long-brewing aesthetic problem: the problem of how to “[work] his way out of the enclosing familiarity of bourgeois room space into the monstrous, tragic space of contemporary history” (135).

If we return to Kafka, we might observe that these very same terms—the opening of “bourgeois room space” into the “monstrous, tragic space of history”—capture pretty well what Kafka is up to in “The Metamorphosis.” For Kafka’s story is very much about the intrusions into Gregor Samsa’s bedroom (which inexplicably has multiple entrances) by various members of the household, about the metamorphosis of that conventionally furnished room into an insect lair, and about the breach of the family’s domestic space by a series of outsiders, including Gregor’s colleague, a cleaning woman, and three bearded boarders. Staten describes all of this—the incursion of social and material forces into the domestic interior. At the same time, he draws our attention to the way a sort of “interior” is conversely brought “out.” The latter takes the form of the narrative’s focalization through Gregor, whose internal monologue, as Staten observes, merges with and at times becomes indistinguishable from the objective and moralizing voice of the narrator (164). The parodic effect of the narrative as a whole lies in the ambiguity it sets up between inner speech and outward realism, between what Staten calls “the interior and the exterior narration” (162).

In Picasso’s case, we likewise observe that the outside is not merely brought “in” to depictions of interior spaces; the inside is also brought “out.” Staten remarks that “Picasso searched for ways not just ‘to bring the outside into the room’ . . . but ‘ways into the outside’”; he sought not only a technique that would “allow the interior to be “penetrated” but also the means to paint a tragic, public event that will lend it “weight” and a “sense of containment.” Guernica will be Picasso’s solution to all of these problems: on Staten and Clark’s account, Guernica does not simply succeed in exiting bourgeois room space, but rather,

as it proceeds through its various stages, Guernica also becomes more and more an interior. A ceiling light is added, and then ceiling lines, though part of the original city roofscape remains, making the space ambiguously indoor/outdoor. . . . And finally, when the painting is almost finished, [Picasso] secures the picture’s spatiality to its bottom edge by adding a grid of tiling on the floor. (138)

The painting, in sum, like Kafka’s “Metamorphosis,” produces its most powerful effects in the tension wrought by a complex exchange of qualities belonging to the “inside” and the “outside.”

What interests me most in this play of inside and outside is the way Staten uses the terms to describe what he himself is up to in Techne Theory. The appeal of Staten’s account, I’d argue, lies not simply in the fact that he interrupts a long-held, Romantic view of art with an account that is more accurate, but also and especially in the drama he creates by flooding the interior, psychological space of the individual artist with a complex of social, historical, and material forces. There is a striking shift in scale: the limits of the individual are thrown open to the long arc of history and the spread of the social. And there are new actors on the scene: techne itself is revealed to be the real agent of making, the original source of form-bestowing activity: “The individual’s power to make anything . . . or to be the agent of any goal-oriented act, is necessarily and always derived or delegated from techne” (6). In bringing the power of techne “in” to the space previously occupied by the individual artist, Staten brings energy, dynamism, and immensity of scale to his account of artistic production.

At the same time, Staten deftly brings what is inside “out.” The story of techne development threatens to range over the entire course of human history, to overwhelm with potentially limitless dimensions. Staten reigns in the complexity of techne by giving us a way to continue talking about intelligent, goal-directed, human activity. Intentionality, for example, is not rejected as a category but transposed from the realm of mind to that of worldly action. Cognition is not tossed out of the discussion but shown to be socially “distributed” (180), and intelligence or cunning is grasped as “inscribed” in a work’s form through repeated action, “designed into it by a process of trial and error” (74).

However, in transposing these figures of the interior to the exterior—in moving intentionality, cognition, or cunning to the external world—Staten risks containing and psychologizing what remain essentially non-human, or trans-human, processes. I would like to conclude my remarks by asking briefly whether such an illegitimate psychologizing might be seen in Staten’s treatment of the possible, and of a “possibility space” as the matrix of artistic creation. Staten’s reasoning seems to be the following: if we reject a Romantic view of creation ex nihilo, then we must endorse a view of creation as selection: the artist must select from among an available set of possible techniques, materials, arrangements, or outcomes. Against this view, I would claim that what we call “possible” may be no more than a manner of speaking suited to our past experience of causal relations coupled with our non-knowledge of the future. Here, I’m thinking of the critique of the possible central to Henri Bergson’s work, in which we read that “the possible is only the real with the addition of an act of mind which throws its image back into the past, once it has been enacted.”1 If we follow this argument, then possibility would have more to do with our relation to historical knowledge than any objective characterization of the present; and “choice” would have more to do with the way we represent our actions to ourselves than with any real cause of those actions.

Staten turns to Dennett’s notion of a “possibility space” precisely in order to avoid psychological language in describing an artist’s relation to “forms that have not yet come into existence” (191). That is, he employs it precisely in order to avoid a mentalist account of intentionality where the design of a work is represented beforehand in the mind of the maker. The notion of a “possibility space” is supposed to move the space of design from the mind to the great outdoors, where it enjoys a much greater complexity and more extensive history than could be contained by a single individual. Design space is moved from the ideality of the mind to the materiality of practice, and it is inscribed in practice, in the iterations of habits formed and actions performed, in tools and institutions, which take the form of techne’s history. Yet it is the passage from history to possibility that troubles me. For I don’t see how we can hold on to the notion of a possible artwork, or a possible choice of action, without conjuring up the ideal image of a work or deed that is supposed to precede that work or deed’s actual existence. And I don’t see how we can avoid resting on a representation of the individual as the agent of choice construed as a free decision of the mind. The materialist perspective that Staten gains for intentionality he seems to lose to possibility.

If Staten is able to embrace and convincingly argue for a non-mentalist account of intentionality—one where intentions are not mental images of ends but are embedded in actions as the very structure of those actions and without which the actions would not be meaningful—why does he not do the same for possibility? Such a move would entail treating the possible not as the mental image of a future reality but as something invented only in the deeds that actualize it. It would grant to techne a much more radical power of invention, one where techne practice creates not only new artworks but the very possibility of those artworks, a possibility that does not precede the works’ coming into existence. To a large extent, this would entail rejecting the spatializing metaphors of a “design space,” “possibility space,” or “combinatorial,” all of which portray reality in terms of a fixed set of elements that only need to be rearranged for something new to appear. Such a spatializing view of creation makes ideas ultimately responsible for creation, and it disavows the creative agency of matter and of material practice itself. It also undersells the temporal dimension of techne as creative time.

To emphasize the creative temporality and materiality of techne in this way, to argue that the possible is merely a psychological category and not an ontological one is, I think, fundamentally compatible with the central aims of Staten’s materialist and post-humanist theory of artistic creation.

  1. Henri Bergson, The Creative Mind, trans. Mabelle L. C. Andison (New York: Citadel, 2002), 62.

  • Henry Staten

    Henry Staten


    Response to Wasser

    Wasser gets techne theory, and my take on it, remarkably well. I particularly love the “inside/outside” schema she uses to illuminate its overall structure. But she assigns more agency to techne than I do, and fears I might be harboring a residue of psychologism in my account of Infinite Design Space. Our difference is subtle but important. I can’t quite agree with her that “socially inscribed practices are the true makers” or that “techne is the real agent of making,” primarily because I put no trust in the concept of agency, which is a very murky one, such that any statement about “the real agent” will necessarily oversimplify. Notice first of all that in ordinary language we don’t say “to exercise agency” except in fairly rarified circumstances; we just say “Darrell did it” or “Sara did it,” without implying anything about “ideas in the mind” or “free will,” only about who gets the credit or blame for an action. Philosophers have erected the puzzle of agency out of an essentially dualistic, Humean, “free will” causal ontology (these days very much under question, but originally attacked by Nietzsche) that treats very simple actions, like raising one’s arm at will, as illustrations of agency. I won’t go into why this is questionable even at the simplest level, but it’s obvious how inadequate the model of simple agency is as soon as we’re dealing with more complex actions, in which the intentional actions of human beings (“intentional,” of course, being just as murky a concept) are inscrutably intertwined with factors from the transpersonal “outside.”

    Interestingly, ordinary language does speak of an “agent,” but not as one who “exercises agency,” rather as one who acts only as a delegate or instrument of a superior power (“an agent of the Kremlin”). One might speak of an artisan as an agent of techne in the latter sense, but even here there would be essential differences. Techne comes from outside just as a command from the Kremlin does, but it is received as an interior empowerment, a know-how, whereas the command presupposes the know-how of its agent; and techne has no locus of intentionality comparable to that of a human superior. As Wasser well understands, the intentionality of techne is distributed across techniques, tools, mnemonic images of excellent practitioners (who serve as guiding models for the artisan), knowledge of the previous well-made works made by this techne / these artisans, etc. So an artisan is an agent in the active sense only insofar as she is an agent in the “passive” sense (active and passive being two other words that we should only use “under erasure”).

    The preceding discussion, by the way, shows clearly the deep influence that poststructuralist discourse has had on my thinking—especially that of Derrida, as of the Nietzsche who made such an impress on poststructuralism.

    Wasser says she wants to grant techne what she calls “a much more radical power of invention” than I grant it, on in which “techne practice creates not only new artworks but the very possibility of those artworks, a possibility that does not precede the works’ coming into existence.” I’m not sure what it means to create the very possibility of the work in the making of it. I go to considerable lengths in my final chapter on the complex way in which each historically constituted techne traces lines of possibility in Universal Design Space, and Wasser’s notion as stated seems to dispense with UDS.  Wasser’s reason for this proposal  is that she doesn’t see “how we can hold on to the notion of a possible artwork, or a possible choice of action, without conjuring up the ideal image of a work or deed that is supposed to precede that work or deed’s actual existence. And I don’t see how we can avoid resting on a representation of the individual as the agent of choice construed as a free decision of the mind. The materialist perspective that Staten gains for intentionality he seems to lose to possibility.” But the whole point of Infinite Design Space is to show precisely how we can dispense with ideal images of anything as preceding the work’s existence. What preexists is, purely and simply, empirical, historically evolved technai; their possibility space neither preexists nor even exists. It’s a virtual space—which also means it isn’t an actual “space” either, it’s a logical projection from the ensemble of existing elements and concatenations of elements of the relevant already-existing technai. It is, precisely, a way to imagine how “creation” can be neither invention nor discovery in the ordinary sense, but the discovery of possibilities that are not yet actual, yet don’t emerge from nowhere as pure “creation.” Possibility is precisely what leaves the model, as Wasser herself approvingly says, “radically open.” We have to find ways to maneuver around the binary discovery/invention just as we have to maneuver around the binaries active/passive, agency/lack of agency, intentional/non-intentional, and so forth. Here as in other places, techne theory can be considered a sort of pragmatic neo-deconstructionism.

    Wasser wants to eliminate possibility from the picture because she thinks it makes inevitable “a representation of the individual as the agent of choice construed as a free decision of the mind,” which would, of course, contradict my own basic argument (which she has beautifully summarized). But, properly understood, the virtual design space model is entirely consistent with my account of techne as the enabler of agency. Technai don’t do anything; they enable the doing. Agency is a human being’s power to do or to make, by means of physical work that has causal force; but there’s no reason to confine this power to the locus of either the individual mind or even the techne itself. The doer or maker is enabled by apprenticeship in a techne, which is an accumulation of know-how that has been honed by many previous generations of makers, and the know-how—the mostly intuitive knowledge of how to make the right choice at each moment in one’s making—is what makes it possible for our work-energy to flow in the right sequence of steps toward the end that we intend. To intend here means not to form an idea in the mind but for one’s mind-body to be oriented-toward an end, in the sense that an experienced compass-follower might be said to “intend north” when she follows a compass needle northward. The intending here is not the doing simply, but the informed doing, the flow of one’s work-energy in the direction by which the experienced trekker is more or less automatically pulled by the embodied knowledge of compass-following. (Here I’m reminded of the original sense of “intention” in “intendere,” “to stretch out” in a given direction.) This pull might in some cases be expressed or abetted by an idea, but the source of the idea would still be the embodied techne that structures the activity in a way comparable to the way instincts structure the activity of animals. Technai are, we might say, prosthetic instincts that, in the case of art, are pulled by intuitions of viable new combinations that glimmer in the possibility-space of the relevant techne.

    Wasser notes that for techne theory “a creative agency . . . is . . . a kind of ‘search engine’ that combs a specific possibility-space looking for useful bits,” but she comments that reconstructing a “possibility space” does not feel to her “like what Staten actually does in his readings of Picasso, Marioni, or Kafka.” This is correct. I don’t do that. But we need the concept of virtual or logical design possibility-space to understand what I do in fact do: I describe the preexisting stylistic and narrative techniques that Kafka utilizes, and the way that he “mixes and mingles” them (as Barthes said) to create something new. The choices made available by those techniques constitute the possibility space through which Kafka found one specific set of paths. In other words, I describe some of the main possibility-generating elements of the literary combinatory with which Kafka worked, and the way that these elements are actualized in The Metamorphosis—not the possibility-space that they generate, which is in principle impossible to even begin to describe, because of its vastness. Every story we read is one actualization of this space; the empirical sum total of such stories is the most complete representation of what that notional space in its totality looks like—and it can actualize only a tiny fraction of its possibilities. (But, while it’s notionally possible that there could be an infinite number of possible “masterpieces” that remain unactualized, I think it much more likely that even notionally there is a very limited number of them that are empirically possible.)

    Finally, there’s Wasser’s intriguing question, “Is it possible to write a techne theory of critical practice?” or “Is criticism by nature too reflective, too idealist?” My response is that critical practice is just another techne of verbal inscription, like poetry, philosophy, or any other—just another way of pushing text around and giving it form, and therefore describable in parallel ways. The whole point of techne theory is to awaken us from our dreamlike absorption in the ideational content of our different genres of writing and call us back to their concrete reality as techne-guided practices. I tried Macherey when I first started writing TT, and was disappointed to discover that his notion of material practice relied entirely on a notional conception of historical context, with no sense at all of the specific literary technai by which literary texts are constructed (and of which I have given my reading of Kafka as an example).

    • Audrey Wasser

      Audrey Wasser


      Response to Staten

      I’m grateful to Henry Staten for his engaging response to my comments, and for speaking to my main points so directly. He rightly notes that I am on board with the central arguments of Techne Theory, but also finds that I overstate my case on two counts: first, that I assign too much agency to techne; second, that I would eliminate the concept of possibility from descriptions of art-making. Let me take this opportunity, then, to further explain the problems I see with Staten’s account.

      First, I am a bit puzzled by the emphasis Staten puts on the discussion of agency in his response to me, and by the fact that he wants to use this particular point to distinguish my position from his. He suggests that I oversimplify things by referring to techne as the “true” or “real” maker, but also suggests that my language is buoyed by the old philosophical habit of erecting a dualism where there isn’t one (“Philosophers have erected the puzzle of agency out of an essentially dualistic, Humean, ‘free will’ causal ontology”). In distinction, Staten himself “puts no trust in the concept of agency.” It’s not clear, though, to what end Staten would undo my oversimplification.

      He turns to the example of ordinary language, in which, he points out, we don’t use the word “agency” but just say “Darrell did it.” Later, he employs the word agency (perhaps only because he is addressing me in my own language) when he refers to “techne as the enabler of agency” and states, “technai don’t do anything; they enable the doing.” These statements echo ones from his book where he writes, for example, “the individual’s power to make anything, whether a craft artefact or a fine artwork, or to be the agent of any goal-oriented act, is necessarily and always derived or delegated from techne” (6). What doesn’t serve Staten’s purposes well, I’d argue, is that in all of these statements, he appears to be rejecting my oversimplification in favor of a dualism of his own. He appears to be insisting on a dualism between techne and agency, or between techne as a set of social and material practices, on the one hand, and on the other, the individual actor, perhaps as represented by a proper name (“Darrell”). When Staten writes that in his model, in contrast to mine, “the intentional actions of human beings… are inscrutably intertwined with factors from the transpersonal ‘outside’” it appears as if he wishes to reserve, apart from or within the agency I would ascribe wholesale to techne, some degree of agency for the individual human being. Moreover, it appears as if he wishes to treat the nature or quantity of that degree as “inscrutable.” But if Staten’s goal is not to install a black box at the heart of artistic creation (and I think that it is not), why, then, distinguish at all between “the intentional actions of human beings” and “the transpersonal ‘outside’”? Why not, conversely, lean harder into a monistic account of a complex process that would give rise, not only to techai, but also to the very idea of individual actors?

      I think what’s really going on here is that Staten sees me as personifying techne, and hence as illegitimately transporting the old, dualistic concept of agency to a non-human actor. Conversely, I see Staten as conceding too much to common sense when he distinguishes between “the individual’s power to make anything” and techne as the “enabler” of this power. But are there really two powers? If so, how do they intersect? If this account rests on an inscrutability, then it does so right at the spot where the romantic cliché of genius is most likely to creep back in. I understand Staten wants to claim that the individual is both a passive and an active element within a more complex process. But when is he which one, and what sort of genie operates the switch?

      Second, as for the concept of possibility, Staten is right that I would do away with it altogether in accounts of artistic production. Before I explain why, though, let’s consider what Staten wants from this concept. First of all, he wants to dispel the myth of creation ex nihilo and describe artistic production instead as a sort of discovery of techniques and ideas that are already there but not actual. And he wants to interrupt idealist accounts of art that would make the mental image of a work precede the work’s existence. He writes: “The whole point of ‘Infinite Design Space’ is to show precisely how we can dispense with ideal images of anything as preceding the work’s existence. What pre-exists is, purely and simply, empirical, historically-evolved technai; their possibility space neither pre-exists nor even exists.” Staten’s response to both of these problems (the problem of spontaneous creation and the problem of idealism) is to make techne the reservoir of possibility.

      To my mind, Staten is thoroughly convincing when he underscores the empirical priority of techne over spiritual “inspiration” or mental intention; better, he describes intention as goal-directed action and hence as embedded in, distributed in, and shaped by techne, in all of its social and material being. He wants techne to serve as a site of inscription of both material and ideal elements, a kind of cultural record of what has been done and what may be picked up again, what may be tested again, practically, in new combinations by new artists.

      The problem, as I see it, lies not in this characterization of techne as a sort of recording device for ideas and techniques, but in the treatment of this record as possibility. In my book The Work of Difference, I went as far as I could in articulating a critique of the concept of possibility, and I drew on arguments from Deleuze and Bergson in order to do so. Let me restate my conclusions here, while also fully acknowledging that Staten’s philosophical touchstones are different, and that his thought is shaped by Aristotle’s on questions of possibility and practical reason. The problem with the concept of possibility, as I understand it, is that it relies on a relationship of resemblance with, or inclusion in, the actual. The actual is said to reflect the possible, or else to select certain possibilities to actualize, possibilities which enter wholesale into the actual, so that what’s new is merely their unique combination. What is missing from the concept of the possible is a way to address the transformation of what has been done into what has not yet been done. The passage between what technai have historically accumulated and how a new work emerges is left unanswered. There is no account of causality in the possible, hence no account of how we pass from the history of what has been made into a future making. The concept of the possible, especially as Staten draws on Dennett to describe a “Universal Design Space,” relies on spatial metaphors that make it difficult—or arguably impossible—to think creativity as a temporal and transformative process.

      Moreover, in a possibility space, individual possibilities are indifferent to one another. I suspect the artist is far from indifferent, but the elements of a possibility space are. Their relations are external to one another, which means they must be selected and put into relation by an external actor. We can see this externality of relation at work in Staten’s otherwise compelling description of the possible as “a multidimensional space… with boundaries at the edges of each of its dimensions.” As a writer searching for le mot juste, he claims, “I only know of the existence of these boundaries because I can feel each word I try bumping up against them: the boundary of emphasis, of formal register, of sound, and so forth” (42). While each “possibility” may emerge in precise dialogue with an existing quality (emphasis, formal register, sound, e.g.), we are missing an account of what motivates the relations between these qualities. How and why are multiple possibilities coordinated in a single system; and according to what goals, needs, or lines of force? I’d argue that the concept of the possible alone cannot answer these questions, but actually serves to push these crucial questions out of bounds. It does not allow Staten to follow up on his idea that each techne constitutes a sort of “cunning” and hence unfolds according to an inner logic. Instead, it sets up the false problem of what can mediate between the historical dimension of techne and the creation of a new work. The concept of the possible returns us to the necessity of installing a sort of black box at the heart of the creative process.

    • Henry Staten

      Henry Staten


      Response to Wasser

      Wasser’s thought-provoking criticisms come at me from an unusual perspective, so to speak from the post-humanist “Left” rather than from the usual Romantic-humanist “Right.”  And yet the objection is ultimately the same: that I don’t explain the emergence of the new.

      Wasser objects that I appear to be

      insisting on a dualism between techne and agency, or between techne as a set of social and material practices, on the one hand, and on the other, the individual actor, perhaps as represented by a proper name (“Darrell”). When Staten writes that in his model, in contrast to mine, “the intentional actions of human beings… are inscrutably intertwined with factors from the transpersonal ‘outside’” it appears as if he wishes to reserve, apart from or within the agency I would ascribe wholesale to techne, some degree of agency for the individual human being. Moreover, it appears as if he wishes to treat the nature or quantity of that degree as “inscrutable.”

      A dualism requires the two sides of the dualism to be on all fours with each other, and to be in some sort of oppositional relation (active/passive, spirit/matter), with one subordinate to the other; and there aren’t two sides of this type in techne theory.  Rather, there is one complex phenomenon, the human power to do or make, which in techne theory is understood as the bringing to bear in individual acts of doing or making of a socio-historically accumulated know-how. There’s no opposition here, only a continual circulation from the techne as socio-historically established to the individual act by an artisan who has embodied this techne, and from the interactions with material reality in the individual acts of myriads of such artisans back to the techne, in a dialectic by means of which the techne continually evolves.  The individual actors come and go, but the techne remains.  This is only a dualism if we think of the distinction between a species and its instantiations as a dualism.

      Wasser sees me as “reserving some degree of agency” for the individual actor, but this isn’t how I would put it.  We can’t say “agency is 80 per cent techne and 20 per cent the individual” or any variation of such a formula. The concept of agency is primarily an ethical concept; its function is to assign responsibility, and therefore blame or praise. But then Christianity came along and started to raise  confused or superstitious questions about agency, under the heading of “the question of free will.”  Once the question of agency had gone metaphysical in this way, it opened the way to recent arguments like those of structuralism, which at times aimed to eliminate altogether the notion of the individual as agent. I retain the term for use in the limited, ordinary-language sense, to identify the human individual who is “doing something” in the ordinary, non-theoretical way; but then I try to describe the larger set of factors that must be in play for any such doing to take place. In the strict sense, there’s only one agent—the person who acts—but not in the metaphysical sense in which the agent is the unique, transcendent source of the action, the unique “origin” of the action as the poststructuralists would say.  Techne isn’t another agent, it’s the know-how the human race has accumulated to heighten its ability to do things.

      I think what’s really going on here is that Staten sees me as personifying techne, and hence as illegitimately transporting the old, dualistic concept of agency to a non-human actor. Correct.

      Conversely, I see Staten as conceding too much to common sense when he distinguishes between “the individual’s power to make anything” and techne as the “enabler” of this power. But are there really two powers?

      I don’t say there are two powers; there’s one power, enabled by techne, actualized by the artisan.  Techne is a power in the sense of a dynamis, a potential, a sort of sleeping power or “reserve” of power, and requires a human agent to put this reserve to work, to actualize it, in an interaction with the particular materials and context of the act of making. Thanks to Wasser, I’m realizing that I need in future work to make clearer the distinction between a possibility-space and a potential.

      If so, how do they intersect? If this account rests on an inscrutability, then it does so right at the spot where the romantic cliché of genius is most likely to creep back in. I understand Staten wants to claim that the individual is both a passive and an active element within a more complex process. But when is he which one, and what sort of genie operates the switch?

      The inscrutability is simply that of the particular, the individual event of making by an individual maker working with particular materials, which is always going to be beyond the reach of conceptual explanation.  Wasser is absolutely right that this is where the romantic cliché of genius might creep back in, but my object is not to get rid of the concept of genius altogether, but to clear away as much of the mystification around it as possible. If anyone wants to retain the term to name what strikes them as work that leaves everything else in the shade, I think that’s fine.  I do that myself sometimes. The question is, how do we understand how this superb work was made?

      I don’t want to say that the individual is “both active and passive”; those concepts are even vaguer and less helpful than is the metaphysical concept of agency, which relies heavily on them.  Rather than attaching labels like active and passive to the individual’s exercise of techne, I want to analyze, in as close detail as possible, what that exercise looks and feels like, and to delve as deeply as possible into the enabling conditions of that exercise. Every practitioner of a techne knows that we have to exert the most effort when things aren’t going well, and that the more we start to get “in the zone” the easier it feels, to the point that we might feel that the work is organizing itself.  So one might say that one is most “active” when one is least effective, and least active when one is actually getting things done.  But I don’t see that doing this adds anything to our understanding of techne.  I can do entirely without “active” and “passive.” For me, the worthwhile questions concern the dynamics and phenomenology of techne-exercise.

      if Staten’s goal is not to install a black box at the heart of artistic creation (and I think that it is not), why, then, distinguish at all between “the intentional actions of human beings” and “the transpersonal ‘outside’”? Why not, conversely, lean harder into a monistic account of a complex process that would give rise, not only to techai, but also to the very idea of individual actors?

      I don’t think I’m installing a black box, I think I’m just recognizing the limits of conceptual explanation—which are, as I said before, at the limit of the particular, of the moment of contact between an individual hand and the materials of making an individual work.  This is where the new erupts, and why the new can’t be predicted. Perhaps the most important element in the eruption of the new is pure contingency, the accidental; and the accidental is a function of the particular event.

      I’m intrigued by the suggestion that a monistic account in Wasser’s sense of monistic (one that was all techne and no individual “agent”) would not distinguish between intentional action and the transpersonal outside, but also baffled by it.  I can’t even begin to see how such an account would work, and I’m eager to find out.  As I understand technai, they only exist, in the final instance, in their embodiments in individual human beings.  Wasser objects that the concept of possibility treats the new as merely a combination of already existing elements and doesn’t account for “the transformation of what has been done into what has not yet been done,” because there’s no “account of causality in the possible.” But that’s exactly where the event of making comes in.  The contact between the historical techne and the particulars of a making-event is where what already exists is deformed and re-formed in response to all the accidental qualities to which the artisan’s hand must adapt the making-process.  That’s why we need to take the individual maker and the individual act into account.

      This leads us right into her next objection, that “in a possibility space, individual possibilities are indifferent to one another.”  I don’t know if this is precisely what she means to say; I assume she means that the combinatorial elements of the techne are indifferent to each other; possibilities are the possibilities of new combinations of such elements, and I, following many other accounts of making, discuss these elements as having a built-in affinity for combining with others of their kind.  I discussed this above, in my second response to Attridge, as a kind of magnetism.  This quality of mutual fittedness or affinity for each other of the elements of a techne is an essential aspect of what constitutes a techne as such, as a historical-evolutionary growth; it’s a crucial aspect of what makes the techne-system capable of enabling the artisan’s work.  Think of the way the system of Western music since the Middle Ages has evolved, the way tones have been shaped into a formal harmonic system with thirds and fifths and so forth.  These elements are indeed inert until they have been embodied by apprenticeship in the psyche-soma of an artisan; their affinities for each other lie quietly as potentials to be actualized; but they can sizzle with combinatorial power once they have been put to work in the artisan—or even, in some cases, in a computer program, such as the Artificial Life programs that show how a simple combinatorial system can “evolve” into ingenious new forms (and with which EVERYBODY should get acquainted). The Hadamard-Poincaré account of how the effervescence of combinatories is actualized, which I recount in TT, allows us to imagine how this might work.  The artisan “selects” and “puts into relation” elements that are pre-disposed, so to speak, to come together, and the greatest craft is that which intuits these pre-dispositions most deeply, or sensitively, or extensively, or all at once.

      If I understand Wasser correctly, she wants, in the most rigorous post-structuralist, anti-romantic way, to eliminate individual agency from the account.  But the whole poststructuralist polemic against individual agency went askew because it took as its target the metaphysical concept of agency as “absolute origin,” so the entire debate was fundamentally a metaphysical one, and therefore by its very nature a welter of linguistic confusions.  As I explain in TT, my approach is ultimately rooted in the later philosophy of Wittgenstein, and attempts to be as descriptive and pragmatic as possible.  At root is Wittgenstein’s injunction that we shouldn’t attempt to deny anything that cannot be denied.  Romantics affirm something that can’t be denied, and poststructuralists do too, but this leads them to deny each others’ undeniability.  This is a classic metaphysical standoff, a metaphysical binary in Derrida’s terms.  Techne theory is an attempt to account for the two undeniabilities—the reality of individual action and choice, and the transpersonal origin of the power to choose and act.

Walter Benn Michaels


Scare Quotes

Toward the beginning of his powerful new book, Techne Theory, Henry Staten says that “the main barrier” to “understanding art as techne” is “the hunt for interpretive ‘meaning’” (13). And toward the end, introducing his reading of Metamorphosis, he says that it’s “not an interpretation, in the sense that it doesn’t try to reveal the ‘meaning’ of the text, but rather the way the text creates effects—emotional, imaginative and intellectual” (159). It’s the scare quotes around both these “meanings” as well as those around what might seem (by the time you get there) the already discredited “mirage of ‘meaning’” that give my response its title. What the scare quotes mark is the simultaneity of Staten’s desire to get rid of meaning and his sense that he needs it as a foil to establish the specificity of his alternative: “the way the text creates its effects.” But, in my view, the only way you can separate the effects from the meaning is by attaching yourself to the wrong account of both. Which I don’t think he needs—or means—to do.

We can begin to see how this works in his description of techne reading as resisting “the critic’s almost irresistible urge to interpret” and committed instead to accounting “for the experience of the reader across the temporal unfolding of the text—beginning, middle and end— . . . as this experience is shaped, moment by moment, by the overall design of the artefact.” Actually, this opposition between meaning and experience is canonical in American literary theory. Although Stanley Fish thought of his method as anti-formalist and Staten thinks of his as formalist, the whole point of an essay like Fish’s (now half-century-old) “Literature in the Reader” was to assert the importance of “the basic experience of a work (do not read basic meaning),” to insist on the temporal structure of the “reading experience,” and to describe that structure as a series of “effects” (135 and passim).

But Staten revives Fish’s interest in the temporal effects of the text on the reader, he does so with a difference. Fish had wondered whether the kinds of effects he was analyzing needed to be understood as intended by the author and he concluded that they didn’t. “One can analyze an effect,” he wrote, “without worrying about whether it was produced accidentally or on purpose” and so his “method of analysis” did not “require the assumption either of [the author’s] control or intention” (147). By contrast, Staten understands his attention to techne as a way of enabling us to experience paintings and books “as they are made (or ‘intended’) to be experienced” (154). And even though the scare quotes around “intended” are intended to create (what seems to me an entirely illusory) difference between “made” to be and “intended” to be, Staten understands very well that an interest in effects tout court would make his own project entirely incoherent, turning his effort to develop what (in a precursor essay to Techne Theory) he called a “materialist account of techne1 into just another version of what, inspired by Lenin, we might call the stupid materialisms we have always with us.

To see why, we have only to note the kinds of critical questions Staten raises in his exemplary discussion of Kafka’s Metamorphosis. For example, how are we supposed to experience “the boarders’ lack of appreciation” of Grete’s violin playing? According to Mark Anderson, their lack of appreciation “shows them to be philistines”; according to Staten, Anderson “has it backwards”; “it’s clearly the Samsas . . . who are the philistines” (171). The point here is not that distinguishing between intended and unintended effects helps us to resolve this dispute (it doesn’t), it’s that, without the distinction, we can’t even think of it as a dispute. Why? Because if we don’t think it matters which effect was intended, the whole idea that we’re having an argument and that one of us is getting the text backwards becomes incoherent. If it seems to you that the Samsas are philistines and it seems to me they aren’t, we’re not disagreeing, we’re just reporting our experiences. It’s only the idea that we’re meant to have one of these experiences rather than the other that turns our difference into disagreement, because it turns our account of what we experienced into an account of what Kafka meant.

In Techne Theory, this point is hammered home even more emphatically from the standpoint of the maker. Staten tells the story of asking the painter Joseph Marioni how he knows when a painting “is right.” At first he is perplexed by the answer “When I feel it’s right” because “feel” seems to him “naively romantic,” but he comes to see that he shouldn’t worry so much about the “feel” part and should be paying attention instead to the “it’s right” part (151). What matters is that the painting looks the way Marioni wants it to. And this normativity—the difference between it looking right and looking wrong—is built not only into his making it but also into our experiencing it. It’s not exactly that if we don’t experience it the way Marioni means us to, we’re getting it wrong; it’s that if we don’t recognize the way Marioni means us to experience it (whether or not we actually have that experience), we’re getting it wrong. Indeed, here we see why Staten actually needs the notion of meaning. It’s what names the intended effect, whatever the actual effect happened to be.

But here we see also why Staten’s compelling insistence that our interest is in what the artist did, “on purpose,” is irrelevant both to the issues that theorists characteristically associate with questions of intention and even to what he understands as the benefits of techne theory. The most obvious irrelevance is with respect to questions about subjectivity and objectivity. Literary theory’s version of stupid materialism thinks the interest in intention expresses a desire on the part of some readers to avoid subjectivity by anchoring our interpretation of the text in the author’s intention. But, as we’ve seen, the actual relevance of intention is as the object of interpretation, and it’s, first, because the question of what the artist is doing is at every second crucial to Staten and, second, because he completely gets the irreducible connection between intending and acting, that Staten’s materialism is not the slightest bit stupid. In Techne Theory, without the formal relation to intention, neither the act of making the text nor the act of reading it is understandable.

But because it really is the case that “there is no human agency without techne” (9), it’s also the case that with respect to actually understanding what anyone is doing, there’s no advantage in appealing to techne theory, either as a method (which is what Fish thought his attention to the reader’s temporal experience provided) or even just as what Staten calls a “way” of reading. For once you understand yourself as focusing on whatever experience the reader is supposed to (intended to, meant to) have, then questions like whether and how temporality matters have absolutely no theoretical purchase. If it’s true (as it presumably is) that in most literary works the author puts one thing in front of another for a reason, understanding that text will just consist in understanding that reason. A reader who doesn’t do this is screwing up not because she’s insufficiently formalist or insufficiently anti-formalist (the fact that there’s absolutely no difference between them makes its own point here) but because she’s not understanding what the author is doing, just as she would similarly be screwing up if, for example, she understood the order of the items on a shopping list to be a set of directions instructing her on the order to buy them in. (And, by the same token, there’s no reason in principle why the shopping list could not have been meant as a set of instructions about the order in which to buy the items on it or why in some work of literature, it might not matter whether the protagonist goes to his bootmaker before his tailor.)

To put the point more generally, the reason it doesn’t matter whether you think of yourself as a formalist is because there’s no such thing as formalism; there’s just figuring out what artists are doing. My point here is not that, to stick with Staten’s example, there aren’t artists who, like Marioni, are interested in “color, light and shape” rather than in “messages and cultural references.” It’s that the critic’s concern with shape and color in Marioni is relevant not because that’s the proper way to do art criticism but because it’s what you need to concern yourself with in order to understand what Marioni’s doing. And the same thing is inversely true about an artist who is concerned only with “meanings,” “messages” and “cultural references”—the only way to have the right experience of this anti-Marioni is to get the references.

From this standpoint, the moral of Techne Theory for readers of literature and beholders of art should be deeply deflationary: to understand a work of art is to understand what the artist means by it. But understanding goes with meaning and what the artist means goes with intending, and meaning and intending, as I began by noting, tend to appear here either accompanied by the reservations expressed in their attending scare quotes or aligned with “messages” and “cultural references” as the sorts of things we should abjure. Except that there’s no abjuring meaning and intending. I’ve already noted that Staten’s disagreement with Anderson over Kafka’s philistines necessarily takes the form of a disagreement about what Kafka intended, and it’s entirely a disagreement about what the text means. So what’s the point of the scare quotes? Why claim that “the main barrier to understanding art as techne is the hunt for interpretive ‘meaning’” when what you’re trying to show is that another critic has had the wrong experience of Metamorphosis precisely insofar as he has misinterpreted its meaning?

One answer is that the scare quotes are just meant to mark the difference between Staten’s account of meaning and intention and what he might think of as a more mentalist account of meaning and intention. But surely the difference between them disappears once one recognizes, as Staten does, that the interpretive question is always about what someone is doing, not what they’re thinking. Another (less anodyne) answer is suggested by the emergence periodically in Techne Theory of a Daniel Dennett-style enthusiasm for a model of “practical reasoning” as “reasoning that guides action without necessarily involving intellectual activity” (182). The model here is evolution, which provides the goal (sort of) of action (survival) and hence the normativity (the species either survives or it doesn’t) but without the idea of anybody actually having the goal in mind, except insofar as Nature is sometimes said to have something “in mind” (and then the philosophers produce their own scare quotes). But, whether or not, the idea of action without ‘intellectual activity” is a plausible one for natural selection, it’s not even a remotely plausible one for trying to figure out whether, for example, it’s true that Gregor’s question to himself, “‘Was he an animal, that music could move him so?’ is endlessly mordant in its irony.” Staten has a very nice account of what this irony is but the relevant point for our purpose would be that there could be no such thing as irony without the whole apparatus of “intellectual activity” (beliefs, goals, intentions) that makes it possible for the same question to function for the speaker as a form of denial (he’s not an animal) and for the writer as a form of assertion (he’s a bug) and to require of the reader that she recognize both. Not to mention the fact, without the thumbs up / thumbs down test of natural selection, the difference between finding Staten’s reading convincing and finding it unconvincing is entirely an intellectual one. I’ll be interested to hear in Henry’s response how much he wants or thinks he needs reasoning without intellectual activity so I’ll just close this by saying that I don’t think he needs it and I know he shouldn’t want it.

  1. Henry Staten, “The Origin of the Work of Art in Material Practice,” New Literary History 43.1 (Winter 2012) 43.

  • Henry Staten

    Henry Staten


    Response to Michaels

    I’ve long thought Michaels is the bravest and most intellectually stimulating critic in the United States, and I’ve been sparring with him for just as long. I think in responding to his remarks on TT I’ve gotten closer to understanding just why we seem to disagree in a basic way, despite also agreeing in a basic way. The disagreement turns on the importance he attaches to retaining the concepts “meaning” and “intention” as the last word in understanding art. This disagreement is in part over critical rhetoric, but I think there’s more to it than that.

    From the techne standpoint, a skilled reading of a text follows from an understanding of the way the text is constructed, and of the principles of construction that guided its maker. By contrast, to call this an understanding of “what the author meant,” as Michaels proposes, would evoke for most readers the model of word or sentence-meaning, where the notion of meaning is clearest. If I say “pass me that,” and you say “what do you mean by ‘that,” we have a clear notion of what “mean” means, one that requires no explanation in terms of a theory of mind. No doubt most people would (harmlessly) take this meaning to be something I “intended in my mind,” “an idea in my head.” This is the old notion of words as “vehicles” of meaning that remains widespread. Now, because “What did Kafka mean by The Metamorphosis?” has what Wittgenstein calls “the same surface grammar” as “what did you mean by ‘that,’” it’s easy to think that “mean”’ must work here the same way it does in “what did you mean by that.” But a literary work doesn’t function like a word or a sentence, if only because it’s too long and complicated, so that, as Derrida said, “the spider [i.e., the writer] is always a little lost in his own web.” But since the way meaning works in the case of a literary work is puzzling, it’s the kind of thing that arouses the theory urge, and if one is in the grip of the meaning-in-the head model, it gets people thinking about how authors use words as vehicles of what they mentally intend, in the same way that (as they suppose) we do when we say “pass me that.” I’m sure Michaels doesn’t subscribe to this model, yet that is what locutions like “what Kafka meant” suggest. He insists that if we properly understood what “mean” means, we wouldn’t take it this way, but since hardly anybody does understand it the way he and I do, I think we should move away from it toward language that is less ambiguous.

    The locutions he uses in connection with Marioni’s paintings are subtly different from those he uses with respect to Kafka, and marginally less misleading. Rather than speaking of “what Marioni means by this painting,” he speaks of experiencing a painting “the way Marioni means us to.” This new locution too might be taken to refer to a meaning-in-the-head that the painting vehiculates, but begins to shift focus to the way attentive, well-informed attention to the qualities and the structure of the painting structures our experience of it, which I think is where our attention should be. But he thinks it’s important to call this “experiencing what the maker intended,” whereas I think this is potentially misleading. That’s why I put “meaning” and “intention” in scare quotes, and foreground instead the intentionality that is built into the techne that the artist wields. My formulation stresses not only the complex mediation of intention by techne, but also the role that techne plays in the very constitution of the intention itself, largely by way of structuring the intuitions that apprenticeship in a techne wires into the mind-body of the artisan, and which are the basis of the ability to intend in the appropriate way. I argue, in other words, that artist’s intention is more accurately understood as an embodied making-intention than as a meaning-intention.

    Michaels is right to stress that there are different kinds of making-intentions, and that we don’t understand the art if we don’t understand the making-intention. But one of the purposes of TT is to raise doubts about the drift of art toward mentalistic kinds of making-intention that are not readable mainly on the basis of attunement to the relevant techne, from an experience of “the work itself,” but require us to be guided primarily by the maker’s statement of intention. Conceptual art is the extreme, but far from only, case of art-mentalism of this kind. Cy Twombly, for example, labeled a completely abstract painting The Anger of Achilles and directed us to see a red swirl of paint as Achilles, and a black swirl of paint as the dead Patroclus. This is certainly maker’s meaning, but it’s a meaning that depends on abstract ratiocination about the painting, rather than a heightened and better-informed attention to the logic of paint on canvas—a logic that makes no evident contact with the story of Achilles. Here is where we see the difference it makes to stress “how the work is made” over “what the artist intended.” The latter has opened the way to a great deal of undisciplined, purely speculative, often pretentious, talk about art. Much interesting art has been made in this way, but it participates in the larger drift of late capitalist society toward increasing abstraction from the material conditions of existence, especially from the labor process of which art-making is properly a part, in favor of the executive intellect that is credited with guiding and financing the labor process.

    On the techne model, our intentions, rather than being entirely, or even primarily, located in our heads, are “distributed” across our mind-bodies, our technai, and our relation to our formative and adaptive environment as mediated by our knowledge of technai, beginning with language-learning. This is in accord with the revisionist cognitive theory that has been developing in the past few decades, and which Andy Clark has brilliantly synthesized in a series of books.

    I’m stumped by Michaels’s claim that techne theory can make no difference in critical practice, when it changes one’s very experience of the work itself. Someone who took Twombly’s notions about The Anger of Achilles seriously would have a very different experience of the painting than someone who looked at it for its painterly qualities, and would write about it very differently. But one need not look to my own version of techne theory for evidence of such practical effects; the distinction between narrator and author is a techne-concept that has had massive effects on reading and criticism for many years. When we realize that in Middlemarch a narrator speaks whose views can’t be transparently mapped onto George Eliot we read the text entirely differently than otherwise—and we do so as a direct result of the techne-theoretical distinction between author’s intention and narrator’s intention.

    By contrast, the only difference in critical practice that I can see ensuing from the primacy of “artist’s meaning” is that it leads us away from techne toward meaning-in-the head. I know Michaels doesn’t intend that, yet I suspect a residual mentalism in his resolute attachment to these terms, “meaning” and “intention,” and in his rejection of the idea that practical reasoning does mostly or entirely without “intellectual activity.” He says that “the interpretive question is always about what one is doing, not what one is thinking,” but it’s hard to see how thinking doesn’t sneak back in as the last word when he posits “intellectual activity” as the essential presupposition for “doing,” or when he says that the “apparatus” of mental activity is “beliefs, goals, intentions.” Beliefs and intentions are not an “apparatus” at all, they’re exactly what mental activity was conceived in important part to consist of, qua “mental,” by the old-fashioned analytic philosophy Wittgenstein so strenuously opposed. To name them as the “apparatus” of what one is doing is to slip thinking-concepts back in as the “apparatus” of doing. From my standpoint, by contrast, technai are as much the apparatus of the beliefs and intentions of individuals as they are of art-making.  Technai a sort of distributed mind that is a possession primarily of communities rather than individuals. I wonder whether there isn’t an attachment to some form of individualism somewhere behind Michaels’s championing of meaning and intention. I don’t dogmatically reject all forms of individualism; my comment here is restricted to what Volosinov called the “individualistic subjectivism” of Romantic linguistics.

    The relevant apparatus for seeing the irony in Gregor’s question is not anybody’s beliefs or intentions but the critic’s techne that guides us through Kafka’s techne. Michaels might perhaps reply that I must have an “intellectual” understanding of technai in order to apply them, but I think the work on extended, embodied, and distributed cognition by researchers like Andy Clark has shown fairly conclusively how technai are in-corporated in such a way that they become intuitive or “instinctual” in me—part of my practical reasoning—so that they can guide my understanding without my having to think about them. As Clark puts it, our external resources—our technai, in my terms—things like words and writing systems and tools, do much of our “cognitive work” for us. Calculating with Roman numerals requires much less “intellectual activity” than doing it with Arabic numerals, which grease the skids of our intellectual activity, and a calculator does even more of this. Of course “intellectual activity” is still going on, but the more techne is involved, the more of what was formerly our intellectual activity is done by it, and the more radically “unconscious” our work becomes. That’s how technai work; we in-corporate them as skills, then we place our attention elsewhere and delegate tasks we previously had to think about to our incorporated techne. A beginning pianist reads individual notes, thinks about finger placement, and so on; a skilled pianist can be quite unconscious of these things and focus on “expression,” and even then might enter a kind of trance, in which the performance seems to be happening of its own. Conrad said he wrote Heart of Darkness in a such a trance—an experience often testified to by writers. Even a humble critic like Michaels or Staten writes best when the writing takes on its own driving energy and direction. That’s how what we call intellectual activity actually works, and I wouldn’t mind calling it that, if it were understood that most of it is a form of practical reasoning, but Michaels makes clear he doesn’t see it that way. Hence my sense of his residual mentalism.

    Thinking of art-making in terms of the creative mechanisms of embodied techne dispenses with both mentalistic and mystical conceptions—with the proviso that the techne must be embodied in a human who provides a high-powered enough “platform” (one with “talent” or “aptitude” for that specific techne, and one with a lot of work-energy—the kind of human Romantics call “a genius”) so that the techne can be optimally deployed. You still need “talent” to be master of your techne—but talent isn’t what does the creative work, it’s only a precondition for the optimal incorporation of the techne.

Nathan Brown


The Myth of the Romantic Myth and the Place of Poiesis

People often think they can insult writers by comparing them to factories. But why shouldn’t a real writer be a manufacturer as well? Shouldn’t he devote all his life to the business of shaping literary substance into forms that are practical and useful on a grand scale? How well many bunglers could use only a small fraction of the industry and precision that we hardly notice anymore in the most ordinary tools?

—Friedrich Schlegel, Athenaeum Fragment 367


Throughout Techne Theory, Henry Staten articulates his approach to artistic production in opposition to the “Romantic myth of the spontaneous artist” (8). Staten invokes pre-romantic sources while introducing what he calls “the techne standpoint,” noting that Dubos refers to his subjects as “artisans” in his Poets and Painters (1709), while Batteaux maintained in 1746 that “even geniuses ‘cannot properly create,’ they can only ‘recognize where and how [something] is” (3). But Staten warns that, even as this “prescient definition” of genius as techne was asserted in mid-eighteenth century, “the Romantic breeze was beginning to blow, and would soon replace the notion of the illustrious artisan and the non-creator genius with that of the genius creator. Now techne, the skill and knowledge of the artisan, was depreciated as merely ‘mechanical’ activity, and our modern concept of Art and the Artist took centre stage” (4).

This opposition is at work within the third paragraph of Techne Theory, and it continues to buttress Staten’s intervention throughout: this is a book written against the “Romantic myth” of creative spontaneity, and toward an overturning of that myth prioritizing artisanal techne as the core of artistic production. No sooner than we arrive at the second page of Staten’s book, we might thus pause to ask: is it true that “the decisive turn towards the modern mystification of art was taken by the Romantic theory of genius” (4)? Is it the case that “Romantic theory” is responsible for an idea of artistic production dominated by “creative spontaneity”? And is it the case that this idea still dominates contemporary approaches to art, at the expense of attention to techne?

I think the answer to these questions is “no,” and Staten himself seems ambivalent, noting that “Romantic thought never entirely forget about art in the traditional sense” (4). Here he cites Kant, “who gave the Romantic theory its most influential form,” yet “tortuously reconciled the old value of art as maker’s knowledge, derived from previous models of art-making, with the ascendant value of genius” (4). Indeed, Staten’s own account of techne theory sets out from Kant’s recognition that “genius is not the source of aesthetic form; genius as such produces nothing but nonsense” (7). Kant’s “most radical and penetrating insight,” Staten argues, “is the one concerning the limitation of the creative power of genius” (7).

So if Kant is both the progenitor of the Romantic myth of creative spontaneity and a key source of the insight that genius is nothing without techne, who are the Romantic idealogues responsible for first generating a modern tradition that “entirely forgot about art in the traditional sense” (4)? We never really find out. Throughout Techne Theory, the only other Romantic thinker or artist with whom Staten briefly engages is Wordsworth. Yet Wordsworth serves, like Kant, as a counterexample to the Romanticism against which Staten sets himself. Seamus Heaney will exemplify a later “Romantic view” according to which poetry “is the immediate resonance of a human being’s inwardness” (87). Staten argues that Heaney “has given us an exemplary modern statement on the Romantic view of poetry,” and he states that “I know of no better way to show the limitations of the Romantic view of creation than by tracking the contortions of Heaney’s argument” (87). But as Staten tracks the relation of Heaney’s argument to Wordsworth, what those contortions actually show is that Heaney misreads Wordsworth in order to articulate his own “modern statement.” Wordsworth himself “turned his epiphanic experience” into a poem “by adopting the traditional poetic ‘mask’ with which to speak, the mask of the traditional ballad form” (95). Yet Staten argues that Heaney, in claiming Wordsworth as a paragon of “original visionary excitement,” has “apparently forgotten that Wordsworth’s recourse to the ballad form was supposed to be a form of oracular ‘disguise’” (96). Heaney’s appropriation of Wordsworth’s commitment to artifice “describes it not as a disguise or ploy but as an amplification of Wordsworth’s ‘original visionary excitement’” (96). So according to Wordsworth, techne is essential to poetic creation: the mask of ballad form is indissociable from the creative act. Staten shows that Heaney misreads this Romantic precedent as merely an amplification of “original visionary excitement,” yet this misreading nevertheless becomes Staten’s own account of the “Romantic myth.”

What Staten thus constructs is a myth of the Romantic myth, a misreading of what was misread. While Kant insists on the necessity of techne as that which saves genius from nonsense, “the last vestiges of regard for art as techne were erased in the modern notion, purportedly inspired by Duchamp, that art is basically conceptual” (4). On this account, it is Duchamp’s modernism through which “the idea that the ineffable quality of artness was a product of a mysterious creative faculty” (4) ultimately takes hold. The movement from modernism to conceptual art supposedly consolidates Romantic ideology, but an account of the genesis of that ideology in Romanticism is never offered, since Kant and Wordsworth are both invoked as precursors of techne theory. In Hegelian terms we might say: in itself, Techne Theory shows that the Romantic myth is itself a myth, but for itself, it reiterates the very myth that it debunks.

If we turn to those self-declared Romantics who were indeed inspired by Kant, we find a far more complex theory of art than the myth of creativity divorced from techne against which Staten polemicizes. “People often think they can insult writers by comparing them to factories,” notes Friedrich Schlegel in the fragment I have taken as my epigraph, “But why shouldn’t a real writer be a manufacturer as well?” Schlegel then declaims his appreciation for the technological embeddedness of thinking and making that Staten will champion as techne theory: “How well many bunglers could use only a small fraction of the industry and precision that we hardly notice anymore in the most ordinary tools!”1 Moreover, Schlegel explicitly rejects the primacy of creative spontaneity in the production of art:

As long as the artist is in the process of discovery and inspiration, he is in a state which, as far as communication is concerned, is at the very least intolerant. He wants to blurt out everything, which is a fault of young geniuses or a legitimate prejudice of old bunglers. And so he fails to recognize the value and dignity of self-restriction, which is after all, for the artist as well as the man, the first and the last, the most necessary and the highest duty.2

What Schlegel calls the value of “self-restriction” would seem to correspond with Staten’s championing of “Paul Valéry’s notion that the functions of production and of critical judgment together constitute the creative faculty” (29). While the young genius is at fault for wanting to “blurt out everything,” the mature artist understands the necessity of forming and selecting from the results of discovery and inspiration.

Novalis also emphasizes not only the essential contribution of technique to creativity, but the essential contribution of technology to technique. “Every tool modifies the powers and thoughts of the artist that conduct it to the material,” he writes, “and conversely—it modifies the effects of resistance of the material that conduct it to the artist.”3 Novalis thus claims that “every tool is the vehicle of an utterance or action from outside. It is modifies and is modified. The execution is a product of the individual nature of the tool and the use of it.” Such formulations anticipate the theory of distributed cognition Staten draws from Edwin Hutchins and applies to artistic production. According to Novalis, “I feel myself confined by each particular tool to a special kind of activity,” and “I cannot be effective with a tool in any other way—than in that which its natural relations determine for it.” We might note that what Schlegel calls “self-restriction” is also a matter of technological restriction: the Jena Romantics articulate a theory of art in which technique and technology are constitutive of any adequate approach to artistic production, in which the affordances of particular tools shape possibilities of making, and in which the tool modifies the use to which it is put as much as a particular user modifies the capacities of the tool. That is: the Jena Romantics articulate a techne theory of art.

Of course, one might adduce other passages in which such Romantic thinkers espouse principles at variance with those elaborate above, but that is exactly the point: Romantic theory is a complex field of competing commitments, conflicting propositions, and sometimes contradictory values—just like any other constellation of approaches to art we might designate as classical, modernist, or contemporary. However, there is a robust literature on Romanticism emphasizing its understanding of art as institutionally, technologically, historically, and intersubjectively mediated. Staten holds that “Romantic theory depends on a metaphysical dualism that distinguishes an interior, superior substance—psyche, mind, spirit, self—from the substance of the exterior, inferior, physical and social world” (90). Yet as Frederick Beiser has shown in detail, the “Romantic imperative” of the Athenaeum circle “demands that all of nature and science should become art, and that art should become nature and science . . . that poetry should be social as well as society poetic.”4 Beiser demonstrates the fundamental interdisciplinarity and the essentially collective nature of artistic production in the theory of the early Romantics. Referring also to German Romanticism, Theodore Ziolkowski argues that “it was one of the principle aims of that generation to overcome the split between mind and matter, rationalism and sentimentalism, reason and emotion, which characterized the eighteenth century.”5 Ziolkowski offers a compelling account of the influence of institutions—mining, the legal system, the madhouse, the university, and the museum—upon Romantic literature and theory, showing that these social contexts and forms of knowledge were central to how Romantic art was produced and conceived. Leif Weatherby has produced a theory of “Romantic organology,” arguing that “the project of Romantic metaphysics becomes ‘technological’” insofar as it conceives cognition as a quasi-technical interface between thinking and being, while seeking to produce “organs” of their unity (such as artworks). Moving through accounts of Schlegel, Hölderlin, Schelling, and Novalis, he notes that for Novalis (who devoted extensive studies to the natural sciences), the term Technik referred not to “the artifacts that surround us, the devices that aid us, but instead the technical elements of any discipline, the ‘technique’ that was necessary for any type of production.”6 One could go on elaborating further examples (Michel Chaouli on the import of chemistry to Schlegel’s poetics, Jason Groves on the import of geology to Romantic theory), but my point is that accounts like those of Beiser, Ziolkowski, and Weatherby do indeed position Romanticism as proximate to what Staten calls techne theory. These accounts situate the technai of various disciplines, institutions, modes of thought, and practices of production at the center of Romantic theories of art and literature.

Toward the end of his book, Staten reluctantly recognizes the proximity of his own theory to Romanticism. He notes that “the Romantics were right about the naturalness of creation; they simply didn’t know about the evolutionary dynamics by means of which nature works” (189). While arguing that “techne-forms evolve in ways fundamentally like the ways organisms evolve,” Staten worries that “the bug of Romanticism easily sneaks back into our account” (192), thus suggesting that the term “self-organization” be replaced with the term morphodynamics which emphasizes the emergence of new forms from spontaneous tendencies inherent to physical law. And it is exactly here, where Staten worries he might be exposed to the Romantic bug of spontaneous creativity, that I think closer engagement with Romantic theory could help him avoid the “Romantic myth” he constructs and opposes. For what concerns me about Staten’s techne theory is precise its tendency to collapse techne into phusis. What I think is required to avoid that collapse is a more robust theory of poiesis, of making as that which mediates between nature and expertise.

According to Staten, “techne as such, in the most concrete sense, is what a master practicioner knows in her bones, including all the tacit knowledge that is acquired by practice and experience” (79). Yet he also holds that “techne-forms evolve in ways fundamentally like the ways organisms evolve” and “genuinely new forms ‘emerge’ from system dynamics that, as they reach given levels of complexity, develop spontaneous powers of ‘self-organization” (192). On the one hand, techne involves expert intentionality developed through practice and experience. On the other hand, techne-forms evolve “in ways fundamentally like” the evolution of organisms—which is not intentionally guided. What is missing here is a more precise account of what comes between techne and phusis, differentiated from each of them while involving both: poiesis, or making. Poiesis is a process that not only involves expert skill and intentional action, but also error and contingency. It is a productive labor that is not purely spontaneous and/or law-like, not only contingent or necessary, but at once unconscious, practiced, historically embedded, and distributed between agents, tools, and materials. While poiesis is a term that does come up in Techne Theory (e.g., 67), the category does not receive serious theoretical attention as part of Staten’s account. But this is where, I would suggest, Romantic theory excels. The concept of Romantische Poesie—which, as Beiser shows, extends well beyond poetry as a literary practice—offers an expanded understanding of poiesis, the activity of production, as a category mediating nature and culture, art and science, the aesthetic and the political. Thus, through this mediation, it enables techne and phusis to be distinguished without being separated; it enables intentional action to be distinguished from evolutionary processes without dividing those entirely, through the mediating level of productive activities at once conscious and unconscious, natural and social, cognitively embodied and practically distributed.

It may be that a greater proximity to Romantic theory, rather than its stigmatization as outmoded ideology, is just what is in order to bring the contributions of Techne Theory even more sharply into focus: an understanding of techne’s relation to phusis as mediated by poiesis, and thus not only a matter of expert knowledge or natural processes, but also practices of making that are institutional, historical, interdisciplinary, technological, and collective. That is an understanding of artistic production that we could trace through different articulations across Romanticism, modernism, and contemporary art.

  1. Friedrich Schlegel, Athenaeum Fragments, in Friedrich Schlegel’s Lucinde and the Fragments, trans. and ed. Peter Firchow (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1971), 221.

  2. Friedrich Schlegel, Critical Fragments, in Friedrich Schlegel’s Lucinde and the Fragments, trans. and ed. Peter Firchow (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1971), 147.

  3. Novalis, Logological Fragments I, in Novalis: Philosophical Writings, trans. and ed. Margaret Mahony Stoljar (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997), 63.

  4. Frederick C. Beiser, The Romantic Imperative: The Concept of Early German Romanticism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003), 19.

  5. Theodore Ziolkowski, German Romanticism and Its Institutions (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990), 5.

  6. Leif Weatherby, Transplating the Metaphysical Organ: German Romanticism Between Leibniz and Marx (New York: Fordham University Press, 2016), 210.

  • Henry Staten

    Henry Staten


    Response to Brown

    I found Brown’s remarks interesting and illuminating, but puzzling. In his eagerness to show that the Jena Romantics had “already articulated a techne theory,” he presents a rather skewed picture of my argument. He thinks I’ve slandered the Romantics, stigmatizing Romanticism as “outmoded ideology,” reducing “Romantic theory” to the ideas of spontaneous creation and inspired genius. I plead guilty to using the term “Romantic theory” in this simplified way, but I think to most readers it will be clear that I use the term to refer to the simplified version of Romanticism that filtered down to the general culture—not as an overall evaluation of the Romantic movement, which, as Brown correctly explains, was much more subtle and complex. But, as he admits, “like any other constellation of approaches,” Romantic theory involved “competing commitments, conflicting propositions, and sometimes contradictory values,” and there’s the rub.

    I’ve always been a big fan of Romanticism, and was not at all “reluctant” (as Brown suggests) to note a certain proximity, properly understood, between the goals of techne theory and those of the Romantics. But what fascinated me most from the outset was what Stephen Parrish long ago, with respect to Wordsworth, called the “never resolved ambivalence” between the ideas of nature and art in most forms of Romanticism. Curiously, when I note this ambivalence in Romantic theory, Brown ascribes the ambivalence not to the Romantics but to me—by which he means, I assume, that the Romantics themselves did satisfactorily resolve the ambivalence, but Staten didn’t notice. Whether a Romantic or group of Romantics here or there might have resolved the nature-art dichotomy is a question on which I am open to instruction; but that would not affect the simplified “Romantic myth” on which I focused in TT. Brown is so keen to show how alert the Jena group were to techne that he tries entirely to absolve the Romantic movement from any responsibility for the myth of spontaneous creation: “So if [as Staten argues] Kant is both the progenitor of the Romantic myth of creative spontaneity and a key source of the insight that genius is nothing without techne, who are the Romantic idealogues responsible for first generating a modern tradition that “entirely forgot about art in the traditional sense” (4)? The answer is that the Romantics with what Brown calls their “competing commitments” and “contradictory values” both engendered the new myth, and continued to adhere to the techne tradition—but the techne side of their account was, then and now, hard to understand, even harder to reconcile with the nature/inspiration/genius/imagination side—and just plain not very sexy by comparison with it. It was, in a way, a misreading, but a perfectly understandable one. Which of Coleridge’s astute observations about poetry could resound like the famous remarks about the Secondary Imagination that is a “repetition of the eternal I AM”?

    But Brown not only denies that the Romantics were the source of the Romantic myth, he apparently denies that any such cultural myth of creation ever existed, and this is the real sticking point between us. I find this denial incredible, as I think most readers will. When I teach poetry to undergraduates, I always test them on how they think poetry is made, and they preponderantly prefer the “spontaneous overflow” notion, and find techne very hard to grasp. And it isn’t just undergrads; its popularity among literati is easily demonstrated. In the book, I took as an example of this more sophisticated version of the Romantic myth Seamus Heaney’s discussion of Wordsworth, in part because of the reactions to it that I found on the internet, which showed great enthusiasm about the way Heaney develops the idea that poetry is born from inarticulate emotion. It begins as a “lump in the throat,” he says, quoting another Romantic, Robert Frost, and emerges from inarticulateness by a kind of “divination” like that of a water witch. As Parrish originally showed, Wordsworth’s remark about “spontaneous overflow” is an anomaly in his writings about the nature of composition, which lean strongly toward techne; yet for Heaney it became the master key. He then tries to show that this is how Wordsworth wrote his poem “The Thorn,” but winds up describing, apparently without realizing it, how the poem emerged from Wordsworth’s techne. This is not my ambivalence, it’s Heaney’s—the characteristic Romantic ambivalence. It is doubtless a misreading of Wordsworth, but it is a misreading of Wordsworth, and as Derrida argued in Otobigraphies regarding Nietzsche and the Nazis, the misread writer cannot be completely absolved of responsibility. Because they are artisans themselves, Romantics know how essential techne is; but because they are Romantics, they hold on to the idea that something more, something transcendent that is called by many names, such as Secondary Imagination, is the ultimate source.

    The “Romantic bug” takes many forms and isn’t always easy to spot; it shows up, for example, in Heidegger’s “Origin of the Work of Art,” and Heaney’s take on the poet’s “natural voice” is remindful of the notion of existential authenticity developed by Heidegger (of which I assume Heaney was aware). Heidegger is another modern Romantic who explicitly tilts toward nature (physis) and against techne in his theory of making (as I argue in “The Origin of the Work of Art in Material Practice”)—yet obscurely defends techne as well, in the characteristically ambivalent Romantic way. I assume Brown can’t deny that the idea of genius was Romanticism’s baby (I would point in particular to Schopenhauer’s extravagant version of it; even Nietzsche, succumbed to it, with the usual ambivalence about techne), and I’m curious as to exactly how he squares the strongly individualist nature of the Romantic myth of genius with the collectivist notion developed in TT.

    But what most puzzles me about Brown’s remarks is his claim toward the end that I collapse techne into physis, “nature.” This claim suggests a complete misreading of the whole book—while at the same time what he provides as his alternate, correct account of making, which he calls poiesis, reads like the definition of techne that TT promulgates. I suspect he was able to formulate poeisis in just these terms only because he had read my book; but perhaps he arrived at this definition on the basis of reading the Jena group.  That would be just fine with me, since techne theory is an old growth of which I’m only the latest exponent; what matters is the correct understanding of techne.

    [EXT]On the one hand, techne involves expert intentionality developed through practice and experience. On the other hand, techne-forms evolve “in ways fundamentally like” the evolution of organisms—which is not intentionally guided. What is missing here is a more precise account of what comes between techne and phusis, differentiated from each of them while involving both: poiesis, or making. Poiesis is a process that not only involves expert skill and intentional action, but also error and contingency. It is a productive labor that is not purely spontaneous and/or law-like, not only contingent or necessary, but at once unconscious, practiced, historically embedded, and distributed between agents, tools, and materials.[/EXT]

    What he calls poiesis is precisely how TT describes techne throughout the book. But there’s what I consider a crucial mistake in his notion that poiesis mediates between techne and physis—a notion that reestablishes the dualism that has bedeviled Romantic thinking about techne from the beginning. No doubt the Romantics wanted to overcome this dualism, but I have yet to be convinced that they did, and Brown’s notion of mediation strengthens that doubt. Techne theory is, like Brown’s poiesis, nothing but a theory of making, or rather of goal-directed action guided by culturally accumulated know-how; but it’s a monistic, not a dualistic, theory, therefore requires no “mediation” between poles. The fact that Brown argues this way makes me wonder whether he isn’t still bemused by the Romantic ambivalence that, it seems to me, never quite made its peace with “nature” in the scientific sense of the term. Schelling, for example, looked for “something spiritual in the material” in the way that “rude matter strives blindly after regular shape,” a very characteristically Romantic, Naturphilosophisch way of thinking. On the techne account, by contrast, there is nothing transcendent, nothing geistig, involved. Human beings evolve from physical process, and culture is a further stage of evolution, one in which human drive and desire begin to mix human purposiveness into the substance of nature, in the way seminally described by Lukacs in his final book, The Ontology of Social Being. In TT I have developed Lukacs’s account in terms of contemporary knowledge about how language and the other technai have evolved directly out of a cultural-historical evolutionary process that is as much nature as anything else—that, on a naturalistic account, must be nature, because nature is, in the final analysis, all there is.

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