Posted by <Harris Rosenblum> on 2021-09-15
The state of craft is in crisis. For a time, craft existed as the productive capacity for how things came to be in the world. With the rise of mechanized industrialization craft was forced to find a new role. A fissure formed between craftspeople who saw their work as a portal into the aesthetic experience, and those who saw it as a signal of individual ingenuity in the productive world. Individualism won. As America began to sprawl, the electric kiln began to populate basements. Thousands of people bought industrially produced molds and commercial materials so that they too could engage in individual ingenuity like everyone else. Hobbies began to look more and more like factory work. The future was foreclosed into a never ending cycle of producing countless indistinguishable vessels. Individual productive labor began to be seen as valuable in itself, separating it from the aesthetic power that complexified craft before.
Neoliberal market dynamics made it worse. Within the confines of our current incarnation of craft, the individual is in competition with massive outsourced factories. Platform capitalism became the only way out that people could imagine, and as a result, craft became increasingly libidinal. The handmade was put in competition with the thirst trap. Craft deformed in an effort to fit these impulses. Industrial additives stifled glasswork in a bubble of shiny rainbow objects, all ceramics began to look like cum, weavers could not get over their obsession with the loom as a computer, and wood workers began mimicking Ikea renderings ad infinitum. At the other end of these libidinal platform dynamics, a set of craftspeople who do extremely tedious work to embody the “god-level primitive worker” formed. In both of these approaches to craft on the platforms, the implementations became more algorithmic. As corporations began to understand the algorithmic output they began developing watered down shitty products to replace research and understanding. Expression is becoming more and more something you can buy premixed.
The problem is, this version of craft is an obstacle if we are serious about actualizing an automated post-work world. For many people, a major difficulty in imagining a post-work world is what would they do that is meaningful when there is nothing that they need to do. In Inventing the Future the authors rightly leave this question open, but it is important to begin imagining the possibilities. If the incentives we have to offer as an alternative to neoliberalism are indistinguishable from wage labor and capital reproduction to begin with, we have a serious problem. In what follows, I’ll examine ceramics as a microcosm of craft on the whole, and lay out why we should adopt an accelerationist attitude about its future.
Inside You there are Two Crafts
Almost all instances of craft on the platforms can best be categorized as either hyper-craft or primitivist-craft. Glenn Adamson’s essay “The Rise of the Hyper Pot” describes a new form of digitally native pottery. Informed by the color palette of Ron Nagle and the formal language of Ken Price, hyper pots are well lit objects, loosely composed of different physical techniques that look like photoshop distortions, pulling at the same libidinal impulse as NFT 3D demo renderings.
For a while, hyper pots took skill. Glaze chemistry is complex, taking good photos of sculpture is difficult, access to kilns for constant testing and retesting requires at least some form of stake in the game in terms of capital or labor. But as a younger generation of ceramicists came up, the unnavigable ceramic chemistry forums of the early 2000s were replaced by FOSS (free and open-source software) which made the guarded, primarily industrial, knowledge available to all. More people had cracked access to photoshop. The cost of a test kiln dropped below $1000. With Increased access and no goals outside of platform incentives, the hyperpot began to devolve from a possible future for craft into a deluge of meaningless abstracted psychosexual expressions. Across disciplines, algorithmically driven hyper-objects showed us the problem of constant neoliberal recursion where knowledge is freely produced, means nothing, and opens no possibilities.
The other form of platform craft is best articulated on YouTube in primitivist channels. Readers will probably already be aware of “Primitive Technology” where the silent shredded host John Plant goes into his backyard and builds primitive structures, fires raw clay pottery, and smelts iron bloom with nothing from the modern world. “How To Make Everything” takes a similar materialist approach, where host Andy George recently reset the clock of history and is trying to build society’s productive capacity from scratch. I’ll discuss further in the following section, but I think the efforts of these channels are noble ones. Increased material engagement with reality leads to greater criticality of material circumstances. The problem doesn’t lie with this type of craft but with the established pipeline for the primitivist interest. Primitive craft is just an exercise in understanding, not expression or effect. It serves as a replication of the past rather than a pathway towards a new future. The process of coming to material understanding is important, but without a nuanced understanding of the expressive and political capacities, it is inert. The communities necessary for developing pathways to understand these capacities have been extinguished by algorithmic craft. Fetishization of tradition and “the natural'' becomes a default understanding. Because there is no sufficient existing left pipeline to pill people away from the more nefarious upshots of these ideas, people lean in.
The Commercial Revolution and its Consequences
To better understand how things got this way, we need to briefly discuss the historical development of craft as a discipline. The invention of craft as a discrete category is correlated with the propagation of money and the medieval commercial revolution. Before, money was only used to settle debts between large holders of capital. As loci of power began to over extend their wealth, rulers began to alloy the precious metals in coins with lower value metals causing rapid inflation. This inflation allowed all classes of people to exchange abstracted capital for basic goods and services. This influx of transactionalism led to increased trade across military lines, leading first to the development of the merchant guild, and eventually to the craft guild. It is within these guilds that the formation of best practices, formal education, collective bargaining, and local aesthetic consolidation occurred.
Craft guilds held up until the renaissance, when the invention of art as a distinct discipline from craft emerged. Though this is probably given more historical import than it actually had at the time, this division designated craft as the productive capacity edging towards industrialism, while art was the discipline that turned material understanding into expressive aesthetic experiences.
As capitalism in Europe progressed, craft became industrialism. Josiah Wedgwood, founder of the first European pottery factory, transformed centralized production by constructing canals, developing roads, and building out Stoke-on-Trent to house staff. He was a visionary of modern marketing, inventing direct mail, illustrated catalogs, money back guarantees, and free delivery. All contemporary western ceramics is indebted to his breakthroughs in chemical understanding. Through him and others involved in the industrialization of the hand, Liberalism and intellectual property became fully enmeshed in the productive capacity of the western world.
Post-Wedgwood, conditions worsened and design streamlined to accommodate the profit motives of industry. The labor movement rose and collapsed. Industrial design replaced the little existing autonomy of the craftsperson. Individualism began its reign and the body of craft was deformed into automated algorithmic trend production to serve infinite growth. Handmade ceramic shirked away and found a nostalgic, ever-shrinking pocket of the market for which potters could continue producing countless identical pots.
A Better Future
This section draws from components of Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’ Inventing the Future to articulate what we might want from craft in a better future. For the uninitiated, along with their analysis of the left’s failures and folk politics, a major thesis of Inventing the Future is this: as neoliberal market conditions have progressed and pushed people into more and more precarious conditions, we must imagine and actualize a world where we are freed from the structures of wage labor. Much of their text focuses on how to create a post-work counter-hegemony, but leaves the possibilities for human capacity open with regards to what we will do when we don’t have to do anything. A liberated post-work world allows us to do the things we actually care about doing. In what follows, I am taking Inventing the Future’s fully automated post-work thesis as a given in order to further interrogate why craft might be a good answer.
The story of craft we have told so far is a sad tale of the discipline originally about reforming reality to material needs. The slow deterioration of craft under the pressure of market forces, property relations, and now the attention economy, has led to something unrecognizable from its origins. With contemporary craft hollowed by neoliberalism and platform capitalism, what’s to save and why is it necessary for a better world? Simply put, I believe craft has a unique capacity to allow for expropriation of IP, material understanding, distributed productive agency, and the slow collective envisionment of the future.
I. IP Shredder
As craft became industrialism, the collective intellect and embodied knowledge of the guild structure was transferred to machines and corporations. Traditionally, craft engages with materials that are less engineered. A clay body is a collection of different percentages of rocks. A glaze is the same. The way a kiln is fired has only undergone marginal changes in the past 20000 years. The modernist split between craft and industry is something that an accelerationist craft resists. Accelerationist craft seeks to shift the loci of knowledge of production, and automation of the hand, back to the craftsperson.
Through communities of knowledge and material understanding, craft has the capacity to reverse engineer and expropriate the type of intellectual property that exists in industry today. Corporations have little incentive to invent new technology because it is expensive and not worth it in the short term. Where corporations innovate is in the “last mile” of development for open sourced research. FOSS solutions allow us to reengineer IP together in a decentralized way, so that that knowledge can be built upon collectively in a post-work future. A good example of this phenomena is the website Glazy, which takes a FOSS approach to ceramic knowledge. While this is an early step focusing on traditional production techniques and glazes, one can imagine a more robust hacking of corporate property in the near future, especially with the rise of additive manufacturing.
II. Imaginative Materialism
A core capacity of craft is to ally us with the materiality of our world. As it stands, modern spaces and objects are covered in artifice. Buildings are sheathed in OSB and corrugated aluminum. All my objects are covered in engineered oil byproducts. My food is covered in plastics, branding, and images. These material disconnects from the natural world alienate me from a sense of agency. As automation increases, there is a possibility that it will get worse. My removal from the production of the world can diminish my agency over how the world produces itself. Accelerationist craft builds pipelines to understand the natural and the built environment as malleable media. Knowing how to make a pot and use your hands aids in learning how to use tools. Knowing a tool leads to understanding and often inventing more robust tools to manipulate reality. The primitive understanding of the mud from the river can be transformed into greater understanding of physical and social structures that are governed by the mud. In conjunction with the positive components of FOSS approaches to productive capacity and maker culture, there is little that can't be known or discovered. Material understanding levels the playing field and allows us to more easily automate the tasks that come after utopia. Increased material engagement with reality leads to greater criticality of material circumstances.
III. Productive/Reproductive agency
Contemporary craft is governed by libidinal economies of short term validation that equate to market value. In a post-work world, these market forces automatically have less weight. The libido of hyper-craft is something that can be overcome by a return to the closed but permeable institution of knowledge. Accelerationist craft uses the capacities offered by dark forest models of the internet to develop new institutions of knowledge that allow for more intentional aesthetic development. These new communities, free of the algorithmic imperatives that confined craft on the platforms, allow us to build pipelines for understanding the political and expressive capacities of production, and thus make aesthetic decisions about the future together.
In a post-work world, there is nothing explicitly wrong with making a hyperobject or a piece of primitive craft. What is afforded to us in a more insulated community is the availability of other options and consolidation of stake around emerging paths for craft’s future. In tandem with material understanding, consolidation of aesthetic stakes open opportunities for new technologies to emerge and push productive imaginaries further. This collective agency over our imaginaries is one answer to how we can make the post-work future fulfilling to live in.