Friday, 7 May 2010

Genius of Design

The BBC2 programme on the ‘Genius of Design’ tonight was an excellent survey of issues around design, craftsmanship and industry from the eighteenth century on to our own post-Fordist economic moment. We saw so many memorable objects, heard from so many thoughtful craftspeople and designers; and William Morris took his appropriately eminent place in that complex aesthetic history.

But I found myself most stirred, not by Morris fabrics or Sussex chairs, but by the extraordinary tea-pots of Christopher Dresser (1834-1904), of which the programme showed us so many. Designed for industrial manufacture rather than Morrisian hand production, Dresser’s tea-pots have a zany, angular, almost science-fictional energy to them; many of them, indeed, look more like miniature robots or space-ships than anything you might decorously pour a cup of tea from!

Why should a Morrisian like myself be so taken by these deeply non-Morrisian artefacts? I think that fact might partly indicate how thoroughly a steampunk aesthetic has now penetrated our sense of, and response to, the nineteenth century; for Dresser’s weird teapots are certainly steampunk contraptions avant la lettre. They would not be in the least out of place in the new Dr Who’s revamped steampunk Tardis, for example.

But partly too because I certainly want more science-fictionality to come through in Morris himself. When Fiona MacCarthy writes of Morris’s late romances that ‘these are fantasy stories, early science fiction’ or that they resemble ‘some more recent American writers of science fiction’, I think: hang on; no, they are not; no, they don’t! If only they were science-fictional, and had as much of H.G. Wells as of Tolkien about them; and that perhaps is our task now, a task for both creative writing and criticism: the science-fictionalising of William Morris, so that the inhabitants of his utopia will be using high-tech Dresser tea-pots as well as elaborately hand-crafted Japanese-style pipes.

Sunday, 2 May 2010

The Uses of Red House

In the 150th year of its existence Morris’s Red House is certainly thriving under the National Trust’s careful ministrations. It was busy enough with visitors when I called by in mid-April, so one wonders how it will cope with the increased number that more clement summer months will bring. The gardens look good, the volunteers are enthusiastic and well-informed, the building itself is, in Rossetti’s fine phrase, ‘more a poem than a house’; so, as far as the future of Red House is concerned, we might borrow T.S. Eliot’s formulation at the end of Four Quartets: ‘all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well’.

What is to be the function of Red House in future years? We gain a clue, perhaps, from the programme of events the National Trust has organised there for 2010: an Easter celebration ‘for the whole family’ with Mr Scarecrow and egg and spoon races, an Arts and Crafts fair in July, Apple Day in October (with Mr Scarecrow again), and Christmas Carols in December.

All these events sound very enjoyable, and that is certainly entirely appropriate to their location. For many of the great images of Red House from the Morris circle biographies are indeed of fun and conviviality: Morris coming up from the cellars with bottles of wine under both arms, apple fights and occasional black eyes, practical jokes all round, or the more sedate pleasures of pipes and the bowling green.

Yet in addition to all this I’d like to see the National Trust try some Red House events with a bit more intellectual backbone to them. What about a ‘Chaucer study-day’, given that some of the decoration of the building is Chaucer-inspired (and that it lies close to the old pilgrims’ route to Canterbury)? Or a ‘Victorian Arthurianism’ symposium, for similar decorative reasons? Or a celebration of Morris’s poetry, since he was working on his unfinished cycle of Troy poems during the Red House years? We don’t necessarily need Mr Scarecrow around to enjoy ourselves among the Towers of Topsy (Rossetti again). For learning, as News from Nowhere with its holistic approach to these matters makes abundantly clear, can be a great pleasure too.

Saturday, 1 May 2010

In Praise of Fredric Jameson

I take the title of this entry from the front page of the current issue of the London Review of Books (vol 32, no 8), where it points us to a substantial review by Benjamin Kunkel of Frederic Jameson’s latest tome, Valences of the Dialectic (Verso, 2009), and indeed of Jameson’s entire career as our leading Marxist critic and theorist. We have so much to be grateful to Jameson for: an inspirational survey of Western Marxism in his Marxism and Form, stunning accounts of modernism in his Wyndham Lewis book and The Political Unconscious, that magisterial evocation of postmodernism as the ‘cultural logic of late capitalism’ in his 1984 New Left Review essay and later book on the topic, and wonderfully complex celebrations of utopianism and dialectics in his more recent writings.

What we have not yet had from Jameson, alas, is an extended engagement with the work of William Morris, though there are many suggestive asides about Morris in his writings which it would certainly be worth totting up. Morrisians will therefore have to stage this intellectual encounter for themselves: I remember a fine, rigorously argued paper bringing together Jameson and News from Nowhere by Michelle Weinroth at the 2005 London Morris conference (which has not yet, as far as I know, seen the light of print), and I shall have a stab in the same direction in my own contribution to the 2010 Delaware Arts and Crafts conference in September. Jameson has often insisted that what is important about utopias is how they fail, an emphasis that does not sit easily with our own immediate sense of the cheery, sunlit, achieved socialism of Morris’s magnum opus.

Early in Valences Jameson floats another unnerving possibility: that the word ‘socialism’ may now be so tainted by the Soviet experience that it is for us politically counter-productive; and he suggests instead that we ‘deploy a language whose inner logic is precisely the suspension of the name and the holding open of the place for possibility, and that is the language of Utopia, which neither rules out the eventual return of the language of socialism nor offers a positive alternative … which might then be appropriated in an altogether different and manipulative way’ (p.12).

And this surely exactly defines the importance of William Morris to us today; for he can indeed be inflected, through News from Nowhere, to general questions of utopianism when we need him to be, while always remaining a militant socialist when we can once more return, unabashed, to that kind of political language and project.