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.