A short addendum to my last post. It is striking that war and revolution unite people in destruction, in tearing things down, in fierce opposition to some foe. Is the bliss of cooperation possible in more constructive, creative endeavors? Sports and business don’t fully count here since are so wrapped up in competition, in having an opponent that must be beat. How about art? The making of a film or a play, or of a Gothic cathedral, requires many hands working in concert. Certainly, that’s where Ruskin located his utopia, in the corporate effort to create Notre-Dame.
In his famous and influential “Nature of the Gothic,” Ruskin imagines a perfect Hegelian society, where unified purpose also enables individual distinction. It is precisely not about everyone moving in lock-step, but about each contributing according to his talents—with that contribution being recognized, appreciated, and honored. A sense of individual satisfaction in work well done and, crucially, work self-directed is joined to an over-arching project. I get to work on my small piece in freedom, but am also driven by the knowledge of how it contributes to the whole.
The vast body of scholarship is constructed along similar lines. Yet for those of us immersed in it, it hardly seems ideal. How did the stone-mason in 13th century Paris feel about his work from day to day? Surely Ruskin idealizes.
Still, one’s scholarship depends on and is in conversation with the work of others. And one’s own work is certainly pointless if not contributing to something that we represent, vaguely enough it is true, as “knowledge.” Without that, where would we be—just seekers of prestige in our designated circle of Bourdieuian hell.
All of which is to say the Hegelian/Ruskinian dream is a beautiful, even a worthy, one. We do well to keep trying to make it real. And while alive to all the imperfections that inflict its semblances in our daily lives, we should also suspect the cynicism that would undermine those efforts entirely. Hence my desire to avoid simply scorning the Hardt/Negri book or the efforts of our “prefiguative” democrats.