Tag Archives: nature

William Morris – The Lesser Arts (1877, 1882)

Originally a lecture with the title “The Decorative Arts,” given to the Trades Guild of Learning in London, 1877.

Opens with a sentiment consonant with News from Nowhere: neither laments the past, nor despises the present, nor despairs the future…but believes that all the current activity is merely life itself moving toward the betterment of mankind. The lecture explains why the decorative arts are integral to this historical process. In short, they “beautify the familiar matters of everyday life” (234). Morris draws no distinction between the forms of art and the forms of any human product: all must be either beautiful or ugly. Referencing Ruskin’s “Nature of the Gothic,” Morris claims that we should reject the “curse  of labor” thesis, and rather say that labor has become a curse only because of the artificial separation between art and work, which has degraded “the lesser arts” to mere mechanism and “the greater arts” to mere frivolous non-utility.

Morris is not calling for a return to a childish past, in which beautiful things were unconsciously made. Though history itself can be read in these quotidian forms, he does not call for a negative “unconscious intelligence” but rather a “new art of conscious intelligence” (241). Nature and History should be the teachers. Indeed, in 2102, Morris believes that the concept of nature will disappear all together, no longer able to be defined in contrast to a human that somehow would use it for ends exterior to it. History needs to be conceived from the dialectically mediated present. The restoration movement gets this wrong: they hypostasize a romanticized past and seek to patch over the real history that the centuries of “repairs” bear in themselves. [Curious dialogue could be conceived between Morris, Victor Hugo, Jude Fawley, and Jacob Flanders.]

Of course, this means that art loses its status as “useless” or “purposeless”: Morris writes, “nothing can be a work of art which is not useful.” His qualification isn’t enough to make this statement any less strange: “that is to say, which does not minister to the body when well under the command of the mind, ot which does not amuse, soothe, or elevate in a healthy state” (251). Simply put, the agreeable, the beautiful and the sublime are all lumped together, as is the mind and the body, work and rest, etc… Sympathetic to all this, but Morris needs to engage the history of aesthetics a bit more, perhaps. He also reverses the relation between taste and life. In Kant, the faculty of taste precedes the feeling life. In Morris, “Simplicity of life, begetting simplicity of taste…is of all matters most necessary for the birth of the new and better art we crave for; simplicity everywhere, in the palace as well as in the cottage” (251). One wonders whether the palace reference is a nod to Kant….



G.W.F. Hegel – The Philosophy of Nature (c.1820)

Page numbers refer to Miller translation (Oxford, 1970)

The second part of the Encyclopedia, sandwiched between the Logic and Spirit. It is divided into three sections: mechanics, physics, organics. The final section, in which I am most interested, is divided into terrestrial organ, the plant, and the animal. The animal section is subsequently divided into shape, assimilation, and the process of genus (or the relationship between individual and species). The move in each of these triadic moments is from universal to particular to concrete (unified) subjectivity. Life, which underwrites all of these movements, is perpetual return to the self: “it gives itself in the form of an object in order to return into itself and to be the accomplished return-into-self” (275).

Before getting to the animal, which is the fullest realization of this movement of life (it is in fact pure, self-determining negativity as such), it’s worth lingering with the plant. Hegel uses the plant to flesh out what could be called “immanent teleology,” similar to what Kant expounds in the second part of the third-critique, but rigorously without the imposition of the divine as guarantor of there teleologies. In short, the plant contains its own means and end. However, its relation to itself is immediately a relation to the outside world. Thus “the unification [of the moments] of self-preservation is not a union of the individual with itself but the production of a fresh plant-individual–the bud” (322). This illustrates what for Hegel is the primary motor of life–namely, a contradiction that compels a unification that always fails. The excess is life–both the life of nature and the life, one could argue, of Hegel’s system.

The animal differs from the plant in many ways–but the most important difference is that it has feeling, or “the existent ideality of being determined” (353). Or put otherwise, it has subjectivity, the self is for the self, it is not immediately related to externality like the plant. The process of determination is three-fold: 1. immediate, simply sensibility (nerves, brain, etc.); 2. particularity as the capacity for being stimulated and reaction, called irritability; 3. the negative return to the self which is the unity of the prior to movements–namely, reproduction, which includes the digestive system first and foremost.  The increasingly complexity of these processes–the means by which organisms divide inorganic material to be excreted and animalized matter ot be sublimated, for example–correlates with the complexity of the animal: “The simplest animals are merely an intestinal canal.”

These divisions are so rigorous and pervasive that they in fact begin to rebound on the very system of categorization that would contain them. So, for example, the mouth, while part of the system of sensibility…for it contains the tongue with which we taste (theoretical), also works to seize external objects and crunch them (practical); it is also the organ of the voice, thirst has its seat there; we laugh and kiss with the mouth: “thus the expressions of many sensations are unified in it” (374).

Assimilation is divided into the theoretical process, the practical process, and the Notional, which unifies the two previous. The animal stands in a state of tension without outside nature. By way of the five senses, the animal’s external relation is immediately reflected back into the self: this is the theoretical process, where appetite is checked. The practical process “begins with diremption of the organism within itself” (384)–that is, it is the feeling of lack and the urge to get rid of it. A being capable of containing this internal contradiction is the subject. The practical process if not free, since it is directed outwards, and freedom can only reside in the theoretical process of the sense, the reasonable will. Actin according to need (characterized as lack) is instinct. “Instinct is purposive activity acting unconsciously” (389). This very close to the aesthetic, it should be noted.

Assimilation works, first, by simple immediate transformation (infection), second, by mediation, which is digestion. Hegel does not want his theory of assimilation to be reducible either to mechanical (chomping) or chemical (saliva, gastric juices) processes. This process is not determined by an external teleology because it does not stop at the directing its activity against the out object but makes it into an object. In short, the animal, as “self-existnet Notion,” rids itself of it one-sided subjective anger towards the object, and finds the end and product of its activity to be “that which it already is at the beginning and originally” (397). In this way, Hegel writes, “the satisfaction conforms to reason…and the result is not the mere production of a means but of the end–union of the organism with itself.” Basically, the modes of external relation are always-already modes of internal self-realtion. Thus the explicit going outside of oneself of assimilation is an expression of the implicit return to oneself involved in every act of assimilation.

Now, this functions by a triple-determination. There is first the negation of the outside object (in anger), then the negation of the outward-turned activity (anger with the self), and then the positing of the self as self-identical, “but secondly, of reproducing itself in this self-preservation” (404). But the nature of the organism is to produce itself as external to itself (the production of the subject through determinate objects). It is in the very repelling of the self that the animal reproduces itself. And this is the final stage of animality, but it in turn takes three forms: simple repulsion, the constructivist instinct, and the propagation of the species. Hegel writes, “the highest and lowest parts in animal organization, are intimately connected: just as speech and kissing, on the one hand, and eating, drinking, and spitting, on the other, are all done with the mouth” (404).

Simple repulsion is excretion. It is the means by which “the organism gets rid of its entanglement with things” (405)–or, the discarding of the means after the end has been attained, which makes this purposive activity. For this reason, the Understanding, which attempts to reduce these mediations to mechanism and chemistry, are unable to comprehend vitality as such.

The constructive instinct, “that artistic impulse as instinct,” is the unity of the theoretical and practical processes of digestion. Like excretion, construction is a self-externaliztion, but one that builds an outside world:

The object is shaped in such a way in which it can satisfy the animal’s subjective need; but here there is not a mere hostile relationship to the outside world, but a peaceful attitude to outside existence. Appetite is thus at the same time satisfied and restrained; and the organism objectifies itself only by disposing of inorganic matter for it own purposes. Here, then, the practical and theoretical relationships are united. (406)

Hegel is here think of building nests, but also of relationships to the ground on which the animals lie, “which is not used up but merely fashioned and therefore preserved.” So in the constructive instinct the animal has reproduced itself as outer existence while remaining the same immediate creature: this is self-enjoyment. Up until now, the animal has only satisfied hunger or thirst, now it satisfies itself. (409) It cites the bird-song as the prime example of self-enjoyment.

Gerard Manley Hopkins – Poems

Hopkins died before most of his poems were published. Not until 1918 did his friend Robert Bridges come out with an edition that includes what are considered his greatest works, those written between 1876 and his death in 1889. In the Preface to that collection, Hopkins described the difference between running rhythm (common rhythm) and sprung rhythm–the latter being more natural because closer to speech–it is identifiable by stresses coming together. Pure sprung rhythm cannot be counterpointed. The claim for its naturalness derives from the argument that the impulse (in all but the most “same and tame” poems) to invert and vary something like iambic pentameter eventually leads to sprung rhythm.

The most sustained example is “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” a poem comprised of 35 8-line stanzas, with alternating rhymes, and varying length. In the fifth stanza he introduces the crucial idea of instress, which is able to translate in its wholeness the “inscape“: that which makes some individual thing beautiful:

Since, tho’ he is under the world’s splendour and wonder,
His mystery must be instressed, stressed;
For I greet him the days I meet him, and bless when I understand.

The poem as a whole is a meditation on the experience and meaning (perhaps lack of meaning) of divine violence. He correlates the inexplicable wreckage of a ship full of nuns with the brutal ascetic requirements of religious devotion:

Thous art lightning and love, I found it, a winter and warm;
Father and fondler of heart thou hast wrung:
Hast thy dark descending and most art merciful then.

The syntactical intensity of the poem is literally compounded by an overflow of hyphenated words–flint-flack, black-backed, white-fiery, whirlwind-swiveled all from stanza 13perhaps miming the “make words break from me here all alone” in stanza 18. The poet wonders whether all of this violence (aesthetic, physical, historical) is somehow perversely pleasing to God, likening it a “harvest.” The concluding stanzas show his indebtedness to the aesthetic theories of Walter Pater, but in Hopkins they are rendered overtly religious:

Now burn, new burn to the world
Double-natured name
The heaven-flung, heart-fleshed, maiden-furled
Mid-numbered he in three of the thunder-throne.

Pretty stunning stuff. Talk about Christ, the notion of failure as success and the connection between religious and aesthetic sacrifice.

“God’s Grandeur” is a Petrarchan sonnet that works out the triple-implication of the first line, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God“: economic, imperative, electric. Hopkins bemoans “trade” which seems to overdraw its account by extracting to much “oil” from the “soil.” The wonderful line–“Generations have trod, have trod, have trod“– syntactically mirrors the sort of repetitive nature of man’s dependence on natural resources. Despite this greed, “nature is never spent.” It remains charged with grandeur, and we are charged to recognize it as such.

“Pied Beauty” contrasts the variety of God’s creativity with the homogenizing drive of human work, “plotted and pieced.” The form of the poem: 10 1/2 lines or a Curtal-sonnet acc. to the Preface. Like the full sonnet, it attempts a fusion of opposites, but in condensed form: listing off binaries–swift, slow; sweet, sour–before positing a God whose beauty is beyond all change–that is, these variations are able to coexist in nature.

“Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves” and “To what serves Mortal Beauty” are two later poems displaying Hopkins at his most experimental. Both have long lines, sometimes twenty syllables, with graphic caesurae in each line. The former ruminates on the forms of destruction wrought by death: in general, the apocalyptic vision is one of division and forgetfulness, “disremembering and dismembering,” which leads to moral and aesthetic reductionism: “black, white; right, wrong.” This leads to an internal, subjective dimension, in which thoughts are turned one against another. Interesting to contrast this world of division to the organic variety (not totalizing) of earth’s natural state. The latter poem answers the title’s question: “See: it does this: keeps warm men’s wits to the things that are.” There is a danger inherent to form, however: “the O-so-seal-that feature” that Hopkins correlates with pride, domination, and the harmful reduction of nature’s infinite variety. He proposes something very much like recessive action: “Merely meet it….then leave, let that alone.”

Karl Marx – Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts (1844)

Marx takes issue with liberal political economists that naturalize the relationship between the worker and capitalist and the system of private property as incontrovertible facts of human economy. Liberal political economists, like theologians, “assume as a fact in the form of history what it should explain” (323). Through an analysis of the objectification of labor and the self-estrangement of man, Marx historicizes these phenomena.

The worker becomes more and more uniformly dependent on labor, and on a particular, very one-sided and machine-like type of labor…from being a man becomes and abstract activity and a stomach. (285)

Alienated man’s stomach becomes detached from his larger living apparatus, since it becomes the mere means for sustaining the production of more labor.

The worker actually receives the smallest part of the product, the absolute minimum necessary; just enough for him to exist not as a human being but as a worker and for him to propagate not humanity but the salve class of workers. (287)

In return, the reciprocity of labor is perverted, the absolute minimum of man’s productive capacity is returned to the worker. This results in the reproduction of laborers, of humans, but no individuals. Interesting connection to John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, where the individual and species are divided along similar lines.

Capital is stored-up labor. (295)

Capital is unused reserve, which accrues power precisely to the degree that it is not actualized in material expression. In capital, having supersedes being.

 The object that labor produces, its product, stands opposed to it as something alien, as a power independent of the producer. The product of labor is labor embodied and made material in an object, it is the objectification of labor. (324)

This is a bad objectification, because the process of externalization has been divorced from man’s objectification of himself into the sensuous external reality with which labor interacts. The worker can create nothing without external sensuous nature, but the paradox of labor under capitalism is that as the worker works (appropriating external nature to “his” ends) nature becomes less and less a means of life in a double sense: it no longer belongs to labor, and it is no longer a means of life in the immediate sense of physical nourishment and subsistence. The end of this is that only as a worker can one sustain oneself as a physical subject, rather than the reverse (325). This reduces man to an animal state:

The animal is immediately one with his life activity. It is not distinct from that activity; it is that activity. Man makes his life activity itself an object of his will and consciousness. He has conscious life activity. It is not a determination with which he directly emerges. Conscious life activity directly distinguishes man from animal life activity. Only because of that is he a species-being. Or rather, he is a conscious being, i.e. his own life is an object for him, only because he is a species-being. Only because of that is his activity free activity. Estranged labor reverses the relationship so that man, just because he is a conscious being, makes his life activity, his being [Wesen], a mere means for his existence. (328)

Put otherwise, it reduces spontaneous and free activity to the means for mere existence. The spontaneous freedom is transformed into surplus-value appropriated by an alien man, the capitalist, a property owner:

 Private property is produced through the objectification of labor and the process of self-estrangement. (331)

This is the historical re-writing of the political economist that naturalizes private property. Marx then begins to describe the “solution” to these problems. In short, he maps out a new relationship between subject and object:

It is only when man’s object becomes a human object or objective man that man does not lose himself in that object. This is only possible when it becomes a social object, for him and when he himself becomes social being for himself, just as society becomes a being for him in this object. (352)

This is distinguished from the bad objectification of labor, because man himself can in fact see himself in the work that is made concrete through his labor. This “primacy of the object” become integral to the formation of subjective capcities, sensual existence:

Only through the objectively unfolded wealth of human nature can the wealth of subjective human sensitivity…be either cultivated or created…. The cultivation of the five senses is the work of all previous history.

The narrative of Marxist history as laid out in Cpaital, vol. 3 (the wresting of the sphere of freedom from sphere of necessity, the abolition of capitalism, emergence of communism, and the beginning of history, i.e. end of pre-history) is here given articulation within the confines of the individual human body. Marxist theory in general will lose a robust concept of the subject, but here Marx is imagining a sensory being that is product of history–where the ability to enjoy external nature is a part of the emergence of freedom:

Sense which is a prisoner of crude practical need has only a restricted sense. For a man who is starving the human form of food does not exist, only its abstract form exists; it could just as well be present in it crudest form, and it would be hard to say how this way of eating differs from that of the animals. (353)

Along with music, Marx uses the example of food take make his point. Hunger, conceived in a completely practical sense, does not merely reduce food to a source of nourishment, it also abstracts it, idealizes it. Crucially, want we might call “mere” sense is in fact a defective sense, that has not repaed the benefits of historical cultivation. The truly sensual, which depends on man’s capacity to interact with and transform the sensual object, is an educated, cultivated sense that always goes beyond the demands of the merely nutritive. [This needs to be read in relation to Hegel’s description of the animals that go out into nature and eat appearances, thus teaching philosophers a lesson. ]

Before moving on to an extended critique of Hegelian forms of abstraction (much praise for Feuerbach), Marx makes clear the division between being and having:

The less you are, the less you give expression to your life, the more you have, the greater is your alientated life and the more you store up of your estranged life. (361)