#mla14: Some Pre-Histories of Critical Making

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I wanted to offer some introductory remarks to the panel, both to contextualize it within DH panels at MLA and withinin the history of (my field) literature. Critical making connects with design fiction, the DIY maker movement, steampunk, media archaeology and computation, but I also feel that it strongly evokes the complex attitudes surrounding industrialization and craft culture in nineteenth century literature.

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This is one of Matt Kirschenbaum’s reactions to last year’s “Dark Side of DH” panel that featured Richard Grusin, Wendy Chun, Patrick Jagoda, and Rita Raley. Kirschenbaum’s argument stuck with me because of the “hack vs. yack” debate that Bethany Nowviskie recently historicized on her blog. I wanted to use this panel, in part, to show that there was a long history of critical interventions that took the form of made objects, computer programs, and media art. The desire to focus on process as a form critical expression and reflection is nothing new.

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In the interim, and due largely to the generous intellectual direction of Jentery Sayers, Kari Kraus, Matt Ratto, Garnet Hertz, and others, I became increasingly interested in “Critical Making,” – which (as a movement) has gained more of an identity recently due to Hertz’s amazing zine project. But I wanted to particularly stress Ratto’s use of the term in his article “Critical Making: Conceptual and Material Studies in Technology and Social Life,” from a 2011 issue of The Information Society, where he sees it responding to not only the digital utopianism of recent years, but also what McKenzie Wark has recently identified as a tendency amongst humanist scholars to simply replace technological determinism with social determinism. For Ratto, ‘critical making’ isn’t about creating cool stuff that adds critical theory “like butter” (to paraphrase a recent critique of one of Ratto’s workshops by Adeline Koh adopting a phrase by Noel Jackson), but rather emphasizes “shared acts of making rather than the evocative object” with the purpose of creating “an ongoing critical analysis of materials, designs, constraints, outcomes” and a “practice-based engagement with pragmatic and theoretical issues” (253). Indeed, I argue, humanists have been practicing critical making for a long time — since the eighteenth century at least — if not always with the explicit conceptual theme provided by Ratto.

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The work of craft and art historian Glenn Adamson is particularly useful here. For Adamson, there is a growing conceptual divide in the nineteenth century between art (which is analyzed, theoretically, through referencing optical effects and is autonomous) and craft (which is seen as created by amateurs, is supplemental, and material-based). An important figure in Adamson’s history is eighteenth-century inventor Henry Maudslay. Maudslay introduced refinements in several tools we use today. For instance, he introduced a slide rest, leadscrew, and change gears to the screw-cutting lathe – which allowed screws to be more accurately cut. He was also involved in the Bramah lock competition, in which he designed a cheap lock. Bramah, in turn, offered 200 guineas to anyone who could pick it. According to LTC Rolt, the lock remained unpicked for 47 years. Maudsley is no scholar of class, but his competition encapsulated a moment where the inventor was separating himself from the artist and the amateur. Maudsley’s lock, furthermore, constructed a material and process-oriented reflection on that professional and (in many cases class-based) ideological separation.

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William Blake is, at least to me, an obvious, more conscious, and more inspiring figure in some of critical making’s pre-histories. Scholars like Robert Essick have argued that Blake saw that “there can be no conception without a medium of execution to conceive in.” And that further, that those who disagree believe either “in concepts […] that transcend all media,” or “processes […] that try to suppress eruptions of new conceptions within acts of execution” (163). But Blake’s words and images also appears in strange contexts beyond their original illuminated plates. Whether (as Mike Goode notices) Donald Trump puts a Blake quote on the top of Trump Tower, or Blake’s images appear in conservative Victorian matrimonal gifts (as in this Victorian Blood Book), or Blake’s work forms the basis for public art projects like those in Lambeth, his images and words form a kind of pre-internet creative commons with subsequent artists, amateurs, makers, and public figures. Further, as memes moving through, and transforming because of, different media, Blake’s work encourages us to take up the act of making as critical and tactile methodologies involved in investigating about, speculating upon, and experimenting with the material of ideology. To take the most obvious example, illuminated printing is a material inversion of the much easier and more commercially viable methodologies of intaglio printing. Printing “in the infernal method” is a material dislocation of inherited technology with the purpose of highlighting realities that are otherwise obscured. Blake shows us that we can perform similar experiments on him, and “display the infinite which was hid.”

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There are many other examples in the nineteenth century. Ada Lovelace’s critical analysis of Babbage’s mathematics, for example, could be seen as leading to the construction of the first computer program in the notes her translation of FL Menbrea’s “Sketch of the Analytical Engine.” The Arts and Crafts movement of John Ruskin and William Morris cemented connections between making practice, illuminated socialist novels, and (as David Gauntlett points out in Making is Connecting), utopian social communities. My overall point is similar to arguments made by Jussi Parikka and Sigfried Zielinski — that history, theory, and ideology are fused into the atomic structure of matter. The past may be “suddenly discovered anew,” strewn among the “heaps of refuse” we ignore everyday if we focus exclusively on words, paper, and discourse (Parikka 3; Zielinski 2). The tendency of this materiality to become invisible requires precisely what critical making provides: a methodology that breaks open ideology, bends, and transforms it. Thank you.

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