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.
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.
Henri Bergson, The Creative Mind, trans. Mabelle L. C. Andison (New York: Citadel, 2002), 62.↩
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 techne”1 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.
Henry Staten, “The Origin of the Work of Art in Material Practice,” New Literary History 43.1 (Winter 2012) 43.↩
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.
Friedrich Schlegel, Athenaeum Fragments, in Friedrich Schlegel’s Lucinde and the Fragments, trans. and ed. Peter Firchow (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1971), 221.↩
Friedrich Schlegel, Critical Fragments, in Friedrich Schlegel’s Lucinde and the Fragments, trans. and ed. Peter Firchow (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1971), 147.↩
Novalis, Logological Fragments I, in Novalis: Philosophical Writings, trans. and ed. Margaret Mahony Stoljar (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997), 63.↩
Frederick C. Beiser, The Romantic Imperative: The Concept of Early German Romanticism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003), 19.↩
Theodore Ziolkowski, German Romanticism and Its Institutions (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990), 5.↩
Leif Weatherby, Transplating the Metaphysical Organ: German Romanticism Between Leibniz and Marx (New York: Fordham University Press, 2016), 210.↩
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.
11.22.21 | 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.