Raymond Williams with a word on climate aesthetics


industry_power-generation_1Two short excerpts from Raymond Williams’ essay ‘Culture is Ordinary’ (which is nice for lots of reasons) – but these two are important things to keep in mind for climate activists and action. The first is about the working class’ relationship to (industrial/mechanical/electrical) power and the real benefit to life that it brought, which is worth keeping in mind when we talk about energy, etc.:

For one thing I knew this: at home we were glad of the Industrial Revolution, and of its consequent social and political changes. True, we lived in a very beautiful farming valley, and the valleys beyond the limestone we could all see were ugly. But there was one gift that was overriding, one gift which at any price we would take, the gift of power that is everything to men who have worked with their hands. It was slow in coming to us, in all its effects, but steam power, the petrol engine, electricity, these and their host of products in commodities and services, we took as quickly as we could get them, and were glad. I have seen all these things being used, and I have seen the things they replaced. I will not listen with patience to any acid listing of them – you know the sneer you can get into plumbing, baby Austins, aspirin, contraceptives, canned food. But I say to these Pharisees: dirty water, an earth bucket, a four- mile walk each way to work, headaches, broken women, hunger and monotony of diet. The working people, in town and country alike, will not listen (and I support them) to any account of our society which supposes that these things are not progress: not just mechanical, external progress either, but a real service of life. Moreover, in the new conditions, there was more real freedom to dispose of our lives, more real personal grasp where it mattered, more real say. Any account of our culture which explicitly or implicitly denies the value of an industrial society is really irrelevant; not in a million years would you make us give up this power. (Williams, ‘Culture is Ordinary’, 1958, p.9)

Williams description puts paid to the idea (widely held among some back-to-nature types) that power is somehow an inessential and a luxury (think of the way that boomers talk about the number of unnecessary “devices” that young people use today, Cf: this tweet by old mate Donnie).

The second excerpt is about the relation between power–technology and aesthetics, and the idea that power technology = ugly:

[This] false proposition is easily disposed of. It is a fact that the new power brought ugliness: the coal brought dirt, the factory brought overcrowding, communications brought a mess of wires. But the proposition that ugliness is a price we pay, or refuse to pay, for economic power need no longer be true. New sources of power, new methods of production, improved systems of transport and communication can, quite practically, make England clean and pleasant again, and with much more power, not less. Any new ugliness is the product of stupidity, indifference, or simply incoordination; these things will be easier to deal with than when power was necessarily noisy, dirty, and disfiguring. (p.10)

I highlight this point precisely for how, well, obvious and banal it seems even at the same time as so much power generation still does produce incredible ugliness. Tesla seems to get that aesthetics are important. Of course, others disagree but that’s the nature of taste. One of my favourite photographs (one i’ve linked here on the blog before) illustrates the sharp contrast between modes of power generation and their effect on the landscape. I also think one of the reason Joe Hockey’s “wind farms are ugly” type comments gained so much traction is that people, instinctively or intuitively, understand the importance of regimes of taste in the making-or-breaking of technology. My work on the aesthetics of renewable power generation has tried to contribute to that sense, and I think it will only become more and more important.

Of course, the other thing that the photo of the open-cut coal mines next to the wind farms makes clear is the way that fossil fuel production gets to neatly shift or obscure its impacts away from the public eye, while new technologies like solar and wind come under immediate and intense scrutiny just for their ‘newness’. By contrast, legacy industries and their impacts are just facts of life.

Music criticism/game criticism

So this was a really quite interesting essay (which I’ve come to quite late) by James Parker and Nicholas Croggon about music criticism, and I think it has interesting stuff to say to games criticism too. I’m thinking here about that piece by Anthony Burch recently that was very much a case of him retroactively rejecting much of his previous work as a game critic in light of his newly gleaned experiences as a game developer.

After reading this essay, what I feel like the really interesting point Burch could have approached was something like what Parker and Croggon get at – the fact that a lot of what passes for criticism at the moment really is just “human reactions” and this kind of adjective salad that results from this approach:

rather than confront the possible meaning or significance of the artist’s choice of sample (whether or not they know exactly what is being sampled) and address how that might impact our understanding of and relationship with the work, we get a flurry of adjectives. The music is “romantic,” “mesmerizing,” “intense,” and the unknown orchestral sample is an opening onto something “personal and momentous.”

It’s the “feelpinion” version of criticism – and though it sounds a bit pejorative, like the authors of the piece I’m uninterested in shutting this type of work down. It’s great and important and even awesome – it should not go away – it’s also not quite sufficient for a really well developed critical perspective. The conclusion that Parker and Corggon reach is that it takes real work to develop that insight and expertise, and I think the error that Burch made was thinking that it took literal work – making games. He was really quite horrified at how dismissive he had been as a games journalist and how much he underestimated the work that went into even seemingly small issues.

But how the sausage is made is not always important, or even relevant. Just like how we wouldn’t really care about whether the musician inserted the sample with Logic or Ableton – that’s not the important detail to focus on, and it’s actually fairly telling that the games industry (as embodied, partially, by Burch) still cares a great deal more about how the “sample” is inserted than what that sample says or its history and place within a larger history and trajectory of games/music/etc.

But I also don’t know what forms of knowledge and experience, exactly, about games (or about players? game culture? developer culture? all of these things?) is important for a critic. I’ve read some really fucking great pieces that do design analyses and intensely detailed breakdowns of certain game mechanics that go nowhere near the development process, but which do really, really illuminating work to get closer to the heart of the game-object without obsessing over the utterly boring (yet downright impressive) technology. I’ve also attempted my own Latourian thick description style analysis with limited success. Frankly, I mostly couldn’t care less about how a game is made, unless it’s under conditions of exploitation.

The necessary caveat, of course, is that design thinking goes into the development process (or should) and that might be worth knowing about, but again that’s not the same as letting your knowledge of the very human, and very sympathisable, difficulty of just making games dull your critical faculties. Yes, making games is hard, but if you don’t like the conditions, change them, or do something else.

One Hundred Years of Solitude

“Actually, in spite of the fact that everyone considered him mad, José Arcadio Sugundo was at that time the most lucid inhabitant of the house. He taught little Aureliano how to read and write, initiated him in the study of the parchments, and he inculcated him with such a personal interpretation of what the banana company had meant to Macondo that many years later, when Aurelian became part of the world, one would have thought that he was telling a hallucinated version, because it was radically opposed to the false one that the historians had created and consecrated in the schoolbooks. In the small isolated room where the arid air never penetrated, nor the dust, nor the heat, both had the atavistic vision of an old man, his back to the window, wearing a hat with a brim like the wings of a crow who spoke about the world many years before they had been born. Both described at the same time how it was always March there and always Monday, and then they understood that José Arcadio Buendia was not as crazy as the family said, but that he was the only one who had enough lucidity to sense the truth of the fact that time also stumbled and had accidents and could therefore splinter and leave an eternalized fragment in a room.” Garbriel Garcia Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude, p.355.

This is my second favourite passage from the whole book (the first one involves a two page long description of some rather animated and purposive blood trails and their passage throughout a town, across roads, under tables, skirting objects, etc. Blood is fairly magical in this book. Heck everything is magical, its fair to say.)


Donna Haraway, “Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Chthulucene: Staying with the Trouble”, 5/9/14 from AURA on Vimeo.

And a quick quote from David Collings’ Stolen Future, Broken Present:

“What happens to our orientation to the future when its livability is cast into doubt and begins to dissolve? ….What if we realize that the life we wanted to lead is ecologically outrageous, that the children we’ve been raising have no chance to live as well as we have, and that the political causes for which we’ve been fighting may never succeed?

The answer, I think, is clear: all our practical activities, our human relationships, our professions and goals, are harmed in their very substance. The value of our ordinary activities begins to fray, and the entire framework of our lives becomes suspect. Climate change does not just melt the ice caps and glaciers; it melts the narrative in which we still participate, the purpose of the present day. In this sense, too, we are already living in the ruins of the future.” (p.116)