New Voices in Morris Studies: John Minto, University of Dundee

I am a PhD candidate at the University of Dundee. The aim of my thesis is to develop an implicit aesthetic theory derived from William Morris’ practical endeavour and situate this amidst the history of continental philosophy. The title of the thesis is as follows: An Aesthetics of Care: In-between William Morris and Martin Heidegger on Cultural Well-Being. I intend to critically explore the relation between the two with reference to such aestheticians as Friedrich Nietzsche, Herbert Marcuse, Guy Debord, Richard Sennett, and Yuriko Saito. I argue for the fundamental importance of aesthetic experience to cultural well-being: it can evince the pleasure of the individual imagination and allow one to re-situate oneself amidst technological culture.

David Mabb, Transitional Monument (2004)

In this blog post I will give an overview of my thesis on cultural well-being, which draws upon William Morris and Martin Heidegger, with the aim of uncovering what is means to be-well, either individually or culturally, in our present time and place. This argument will be applied to educational culture, from which a distinction of fittingness and difference will shed light upon what it means to be well educated in our present socio-cultural situation: whereas fittingness denotes a giving oneself over to educational culture, difference denotes an active educational nature. Today, to be well educated is thought as a means of ‘getting on’ or ‘making the best of it’, yet this speaks of cultural fittingness not individual difference, or how to simply be oneself.

In the prologue to his Earthly Paradise, Morris in an almost self-depreciative, humble and modest, yet ironic way describes himself as ‘an idle singer of an empty day’, and to take this as such, as other, as difference, is suggestive of his diagnosis of human being in industrial modernity: ‘thoughtlessness, hurry and blindness’.[1] Indeed, it would be more accurate to describe Morris as ‘a busy worker of a full day’, where he strives to affirm nature, and create beauty, amidst the decadence of modern culture. In his lectures on the condition of art and society, Morris makes apparent the fundamental importance of the ‘ordinary functions of life’ or animal life.

In an 1889 lecture, How Shall We Live Then?, Morris notes:

How shall we live then? Whatever system of production and exchange we may come to, however justly we may arrange the relations of men to one another we shall not be happy unless we live like good animals, unless we enjoy the exercise of the ordinary functions of life: eating sleeping loving walking running swimming riding sailing we must be free to enjoy all these exercises of the body without any sense of shame; without any suspicion that our mental powers are so remarkable and godlike that we are rather above such common things.[2]

To be well for Morris is to be in a place where such experience can thrive, where the people of the world will discover or re-discover the wonder amidst everyday life: ‘They will discover, or rediscover rather, that the true secret of happiness lies in taking a genuine interest in all the details of daily life and elevating them to art’.[3] To take such an interest, as Wendy Parkins suggests, consists in ‘not only turning an analytical eye to the way we currently think of such practices, but in adopting a particular mode of attention and investing emotionally in such mundane action’.[4] In this respect, the everyday praxis of human being should be creative in such a way to reveal a more fundamental relation with things which can transform our lived experience. The famous declaration by Morris to ‘have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful’ should be understood as such: it is not only a call to enhance the beauty of everyday life, but to make everyday life more pleasurable.[5]

This analysis can be contextualised in relation to two related theoretical frameworks which articulate the difference between individual and cultural well-being. These are Martin Heidegger on dwelling and Herbert Marcuse on affluent society. In respect to the former, it is claimed that within technological modernity we have come to forget a caring and nurturing aspect, namely dwelling, with the advance of culture. In respect to the latter, it is claimed that within affluent society we no longer strive for individual difference but cultural fittingness, to be not healthy or sane, but sick and insane. 

In his 1954 lecture, Building, Dwelling, Thinking, Heidegger deconstructs the notion of culture and shows how in our technological culture we have forgotten an essential caring or nurturing aspect: whereas culture can dominate, it can also let things be.[6] To act in accord with culture would be to build, to dwell, or dwelling as a manifestation of building, but, as Heidegger notes, ‘the way in which you are, and I am, the manner in which we humans are on the earth, is Buan, dwelling’.[7] This means that the situated human being must take a step back, with thoughtful meditation, if they are to overcome cultural domination, the they, or das man. There are two modes of building: cultivating (as colere or cultura) and construction (as aedificare). In relation to culture, we have forgotten the caring aspect, in the sense of culture as derived from cultivation and nurture, that is, to create a place in which things can simply be. In his 1890 utopian novella, News from Nowhere, Morris describes a place in which dwelling resides over building, a place ‘alive and sympathetic with the life of dwellers’.[8] On his initial boat ride across the Thames, Guest describes this place as such:

Both shores had a line of very pretty houses, low and not large, standing back a little way from the river; they were mostly built of red brick and roofed with tiles, and looked, above all, comfortable, and as if they were, so to say, alive, and sympathetic with the life of the dwellers in them. There was a continuous garden in front of them, going down to the water’s edge, in which the flowers were now blooming luxuriantly, and sending delicious waves of summer scent over the eddying stream.[9]

This is to note the influence of culture upon human being. To dwell in the world, one must be aware of individual and cultural well-being, which is to build with care in mind to ensure a reciprocity between nature and culture, as aedificare. In short, to dwell as opposed to build is to let things be: ‘to dwell, to be set at peace, means to remain at peace within the free, the preserve, the free sphere that safeguards each thing in its nature. The fundamental character of dwelling is this sparing and preserving’.[10]  The notion of the affluent society considers civilization as an organic as opposed to an artificial structure, with human beings situated amidst this living-being as the blood cells, as the substance essential to the flourishing of this organism.

In his 1968 essay, Aggressiveness in Advanced Industrial Society, Marcuse gives a diagnosis of this organism, as a physician, priest, or doctor would examine a human being, in body, mind, and soul.[11] This affluent society is predicated upon a twofold aspect: firstly, he posits the emergence of a cultural aspect brought forth by human being, which has developed to such an extent to condition and structure our everyday lives; secondly, he recognises to live a normal functioning life is to give oneself over to this cultural apparatus, to the negation human flourishing. The fundamental problem is that human being is limited to such an extent to be normal, and to be normalised inhibits natural re-constitution, or the transformation of culture. In the same way the human being functions in accord with the biological and physiological disposition of the body, the affluent society functions in accord with the situated human being, which must be of a certain disposition to ensure cultural well-being. The lived-condition of human being in affluent society is predicated upon cultural well-being, not individual well-being, which means to be is to be other than ourselves. To turn again to News from Nowhere, the Great Change of society, as told to Guest by Old Hammond, shows the relatedness of human being to culture in terms of individual well-being:

This is how we stand. England was once a country of clearings amongst the woods and wastes, with a few towns interspersed, which were fortresses for the feudal army, markets for the folk, gathering places for the craftsmen. It then became a country of huge and foul workshops and fouler gambling-dens, surrounded by an ill-kept, poverty-stricken farm, pillaged by the masters of the workshops. It is now a garden, where nothing is wasted and nothing is spoilt, with the necessary dwellings, sheds, and workshops scattered up and down the country, all trim and neat and pretty. [12]

In short, the lived-experience of human being amidst affluent society is not conducive to individual well-being, to be healthy and sane, but cultural well-being, to be sick and insane, and to merely adapt to this and make it normal negates human being.

‘Social Democratic Federation membership card (1883)
The William Morris Society

The problem with education in our contemporary sphere is related to a strife between individual and cultural well-being: whereas the former is predicated upon human flourishing, the latter is predicated upon cultural flourishing. In other words, to be human involves a duality of being, of individual and cultural, with the organic constitution of culture dependent upon a certain type of human being. In the educational sphere, this plays out in debates over the nature and purpose of education as a means of producing citizens fitting to or different from the status quo. In respect to the former, the production of citizens as fitting to the given socio-cultural apparatus makes for a healthy culture and society, yet to be shaped and moulded in such a way precludes an amoral conviction regarding our present way of life. In respect to the latter, the production of citizens as different to the given socio-cultural apparatus makes manifest the possibility of change, yet to be destructive and reconstructive in such a way precludes a supra-moral conviction regarding human being. In short, the educational learning of functional fittingness with radical difference, embedded practicality with distanced criticality, alone can ensure cultural well-being.

In an article, Thoughts on Education Under Capitalism, Morris argues against the goal of education as means to ‘true society’; indeed, ‘people are educated to become workmen or the employers of workmen, or the hangers-on of the employers, they are not educated to become men’.[13] In response, he sought to educate the lower classes, who by all means were considered un-educatable, so to foster agitation, organisation, and emancipation by themselves for themselves. ‘Therefore, I say, make socialists’, he declares, ‘We Socialists can do nothing else that is useful, and preaching and teaching is not out of date for that purpose; but rather for those who, like myself, do not believe in State Socialism, it is the only rational means of attaining to the New Order of Things’.[14] ‘The work that lies before us at present is to make Socialists’, he continues, ‘to cover the country with a network of associations composed of men who feel their antagonism to the dominant classes, and have no temptation to waste their time in the thousand follies of party politics’.[15] In short, he argues the goal of education should be to revolutionise consciousness, as the insignia of the Social Democratic Federation states: to educate, agitate, and organise for difference amidst fittingness.

The Tables Turned; or, Nupkins Awakened,
Front Cover 
To conclude this overview, I would like to turn briefly to an oft neglected work which also emphasises the difference between individual and cultural well-being. In his 1887 play, The Tables Turned, or, Nupkins Awakened, Morris literally turns the tables on what it means to be well in our contemporary socio-cultural situation.[16] In the first part of the play, we bear witness to the fittingness of industrial capitalism which plays out in court with the contrast between the gentry and proletariat: whereas the former are referred to as gentlemen, the latter are referred to as foreigners. Indeed, the petty crime of the proletariat is met harshly, whereas the white-collar crime of the gentry is met sympathetically, because the former are more in need of gentrification. In the second part of the play, we bear witness to the ‘great change’ which is not so much a slave revolt as a transformation of cultural well-being. In this society of the future, to be well is no longer predicated upon class difference, with all citizens including the gentry now referred to as friends as opposed to foreigners. The former Justice Nupkins (now Citizen) experiences this change with existential unease, he finds this altogether different time and place to be absurd, and he becomes anxious. This is emphasized by a misunderstanding of intention: he awaits address at the Council of the Commune where he overhears a discussion regarding the putting-down of an unruly dog by means of rifle, yet he selfishly mistakes this as metaphorical. In this time and place, there is reciprocity between individual and cultural well-being with an equality of difference which does not impose a fitting way to be in the world.

The people of this place express this as such:

What’s this that the days and the days have done?
Man’s lordship over man hath gone.
How fares it, then, with high and low?
Equal on earth, they thrive and grow.
     Bright is the sun for everyone;
     Dance we, dance we the Carmagnole.
How deal ye, then with pleasure and pain?
Alike we share and bear the twain.
And what’s the craft whereby ye live?
Earth and man’s work to all men give.
How crown ye excellence of worth?
With leave to serve all men on earth.
What gain that lordship’s past and done?
World’s wealth for all and every one.[17]

[1] William Morris, ‘The Beauty of Life’, [in] May Morris [ed.], The Collected works of William Morris, Volume XXII, Hopes and Fears for Art, (London: Elibron Classics, 2006), p. 65.
[2] William Morris, ‘How Shall We Live Then?’, [in] May Morris [ed.], The Collected works of William Morris, Volume XXIII, Signs of Change, (London: Elibron Classics, 2006), p. 65.
[3] William Morris, ‘The Aims of Art’, Signs of Change, (London: Longmans Green, 1902), p. 94.
[4] Wendy Parkins, ‘Introduction’ [in] Wendy Parkins [ed.], William Morris and the Art of Everyday Life, (Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars, 2010).
[5] Morris, ‘The Beauty of Life’, p. 76.
[6] Martin Heidegger, ‘Building, Dwelling, Thinking’, [in] Albert Hofstadter [trans.], Poetry, Language, Thought, (London: Harper & Row, 1975).
[8] William Morris, News From Nowhere, (London: Penguin Classics, 2004), pp. 48-9.
[10] Heidegger, ‘Building, Dwelling, Thinking’, p. 149.
[11] Herbert Marcuse, ‘Aggressiveness in Advanced Industrial Society’, [in] Negations, (London: Penguin, 1968).
[12] Morris, News From Nowhere, pp. 105.
[13] William Morris, Thoughts on Education under Capitalism, [Accessed at:] [Accessed on: 19/12/2018].
[14] William Morris, Where are we now?, [Accessed at:] [ Accessed on: 19/12/2018].
[15] William Morris, Socialism and Politics (An Answer to ‘Another View’), [Accessed at:] [ Accessed on: 19/12/2018].
[16] William Morris, The Tables Turned, or, Nupkins Awakened, (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1994).
[17] William Morris, The Tables Turned, or, Nupkins Awakened, (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1994), p. 84.

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