Humanists have learned that it’s really important to resist generalizations—they’re dangerous because they reduce and flatten the rich diversity of life in the world. Our job, many humanists would say, is to think about how a huge range of different ideas and practices of being human take shape across different cultures. Jan Parker, Chair of the International Humanities in Higher Education Group, writes: “Particularise… that is what the humanities do—mount arguments from particulars and highlight and give narratives to the singular” (56).
I think Parker is mostly right to describe what the humanities do in this way. Parker calls it particularizing. She also uses the word “singular.” Singularity is a word that has a really powerful theoretical genealogy with Deleuze, Jameson, Derrida, Spivak, and many others. Andre Lepecki, in a book that just came out this past summer, writes that singularities are not the same as individuals; they’re “irreducible bearers of strangeness” (6). And I do think this has been by and large the core value of the humanities: we’ve been seeking out anything irreducibly strange and other that troubles expectations and gets in the way of systems. We’ve focused on such singularities as the event, the body, alterity, desire, resistance, affect, and materiality.
And of course it’s true that the study of singularities is in part what makes the humanities most unlike the sciences and the social sciences, which typically try to figure out general patterns and rules and laws.
Now this is a powerful tradition in the humanities and I very much want it to continue. But I also think the celebration of singularities has become such an unquestioned presumption in the field that it’s getting in the way of some of the other things lots of us care about—and most of all, political change. I believe that the hardest and most urgent task for the humanities now is one that the focus on particularities isn’t helping us to resolve, which is how to support and sustain collective life—the task of living together in groups, sometimes very very large numbers—crowds, cities, coalitions, ecosystems, the planet.
So I want to make a case for a more generalizing practice in the humanities, which I’ll call model thinking. I’ll be looking at many 19th-century British examples, because that’s my field of expertise, but point is to generalize from these to other contexts, including the present and future.
1. Why and how do we study singularities?
Paradoxically, two general values to study of singularities: first is ethical. When we perceive something as singular we’re also perceiving it as anti-instrumental—as an ends in itself—so attending to singularities means learning to respect things as they are instead of pressing them into service of some other program. Also a political implication: by refusing instrumentality, and especially by refusing to serve dominant systems, singularities suggest alternatives, openings to a better future.
We have two major methods for studying singularities in the humanities. The first major method is history. David Halperin, famous theorist and historian of sexuality, says an attention to the past is important because it works against “cultural chauvinism” (15) We’re too apt to get stuck in our own views and assumptions, and take them to be natural and necessary. The historical scholar shows us how contingent, how local, our own views are. So historical approaches help us to resist dominant assumptions by revealing the rich heterogeneity of experience across times and places.
The other major method that encourages a celebration of singularity is “close reading.” Paying a sustained attention to the otherness of a text is good for disrupting assumptions and expectations. As Jane Gallop writes, close reading is “a method for resisting and calling into question our inevitable tendency to bring things together in smug, overarching conclusions” (185). So that’s an ethical claim. Close reading is also a way to do justice to aesthetic experience: as Derek Attridge argues, we read closely to give art its due as a “wholly new existent that cannot be apprehended by the old modes of understanding” (9).
Okay, so with the humanities we get historical specificity and close reading, ethics and aesthetics, which all seek to do justice to singularities, and these work against dominant power formations, like capitalism or European imperialism or patriarchy, which seek to reproduce the world in their own oppressive images, pretending to be natural, permanent, universal. From this perspective, the choice doesn’t seem hard to make.
But to be always in opposition to dominant norms is to adopt what Susan Stanford Friedman calls the “gadfly” model of the humanities (3): dominant groups make their complacent and sometimes terrifying generalizations, and then humanists come along try to irritate and disrupt these with our attention to nuance and singularity. But this means that the scope of the humanities will always be reactive.
And to my mind, the most important drawback to this kind of reactivity is that it doesn’t help humanities to participate in building political alternatives to the status quo. The eruption of singularity is exciting and destabilizing, but it doesn’t help us to imagine how we might genuinely support or maintain collectives differently. If we insist that humanists always and only particularize, then I think, at our peril, we leave the task of making collective life to the social and natural sciences and to government and business.
So what I really want to figure out myself these days is not just what should be undone but, ideally, we would want to put in its place. It’s here that the humanities has, to my mind, most crucially failed. We’re great gadflies. But we’re pretty terrible at imagining and building alternatives. So this brings me to second part of my talk.
2. From gadflies to formalists
One especially damaging political consequence of the humanistic respect for singularities has been the moralizing of scale—the idea that only the detailed and the local can yield valuable knowledge. Writing against world literature, Emily Apter claims that any attempt to work on a “gargantuan scale” must always turn us into “flimsy” and “superficial” readers (3, 177). And that means that the ethics and politics that goes along with the resistance to imperialism, capitalism, and patriarchy is also a turn to the small—to close reading, to situated bodies, to the single event or moment.
But politics is the problem of collective life. And today collective life is happening on unprecedentedly vast scales: literally billions of human bodies, all interdependent, all needing to be sustained and protected, not to mention the nonhuman bodies that inhabit the planet. Apter may be right that this also means moving away from singularities. We literally can’t cognize the near-infinite variety of ways of being and becoming across the planet.
But where does that leave us? It seems to me that vast variation is a reality, and it’s intensely important. But it is not in itself a politics. I want to make the case that collective life depends on orders and arrangements of bodies, materials, and spaces—on what in my recent book I called forms. I defined form there in a deliberately broad way as any shape or configuration, any arrangement of elements, any ordering or patterning. I wanted the term to be able to refer equally to a poem and to urban planning.
And politics, I argued in my book, works through and as form (3). Politics is the work of giving shape to collective life. So we know that political power often operates through spatial containers and boundaries—such as nation-states and domestic walls. We have constant arguments about who belongs where: do working-class crowds belong in the public square? Do women belong in voting booths? But politics isn’t only about imposing form on space. It’s also about organizing time: we might think about prison terms, naturalization periods, and the legal age for voting rights, military service, and sexual consent. And we know, too, that politics means enforcing hierarchies: white and black, masculine and feminine, straight and queer. So the political involves activities of ordering, patterning, or shaping. Politics is all about distributions and arrangements, which means that there is no politics without form.
Now, by definition forms are not singular. They’re not specific. As abstract organizing principles, they can and do move across time and space, organizing different materials. A rhythm can organize a piece of music or heartbeat or a group of workers; rows can organize a theater or beehive or a classroom. All kinds of forms can be reproduced across scales and media and contexts: hierarchies and pairs and binaries and so on. Forms are flexible in the sense that they can move across contexts and materials.
But they’re not infinitely flexible. I’ve argued that each form has certain capacities but also certain incapacities; forms have what I call (borrowing from design theory) affordances, actions they do and don’t allow. So, for example, take a set of enclosures: a nation state; a prison cell; a change purse. Across scales and across media, all of these enclosures do certain work: they protect, enclose, and exclude. They don’t do other kinds of work—for example, they don’t develop or melt or erupt. Despite their differences, the tiny enclosure of the change purse has many of the same affordances as the enormous enclosure of the nation state. We can predict, in fact, that wherever we build an enclosure, on whatever scale and out of whatever materials, it will confine what is inside it and exclude what is outside.
So now I want to join two claims: first, that the polis always depends on organizing forms; and second, that all of these forms have general properties they carry with them wherever they go. Bringing them together, I’m arguing that we can know something about how political forms work wherever they happen to crop up. A hierarchy in one place is going to do similar work to a hierarchy across the world at another point in history.
So my main question is this: what would humanistic studies look like if we saw our main task not as seeking out singularities but as building political orders based on what we know about the general affordances of forms? Singularities can’t be a ground for a new order because it’s their job to be disruptive and disorderly. So what I want to know instead, is which forms might afford just and loving collectivities, experiences that wouldn’t just flicker and flare up but would take stable shape over time.
3. Political reading, general reading
Now, as I started trying to imagine what it might look like to move away from close reading and historicism to sketch out forms for collective life, I was a little surprised to notice that many readings of literary texts which we’d consider political readings already do the kind of generalizing work I was trying to articulate.
Let’s look briefly at an example: two prominent critics reading the same scene in Jane Eyre. Jane’s austere cousin St. John Rivers invites her to accompany him to India, and she’s willing to consider the proposal as long as she doesn’t have to go as his wife. Bruce Robbins interprets this scene as opening up the imaginative possibility of an autonomous and fulfilling working life for women outside of the marriage plot (64). Deirdre David reads same scene a bit differently. For David, a career for Jane in India might bring her a kind of feminist autonomy, sure, but because the work she’d do would involve serving the British colonial administration, Jane’s autonomy is troubling because it would come at the expense of colonized peoples (88).
Both are concerned about hierarchical forms—gender inequality for Robbins, colonial inequality for David. The plot doesn’t actually take Jane to India at all, of course, so both critics are actually spinning out implied narratives beyond the novel’s own pages. Implicitly, both are taking a single episode in a single novel and imagining what the world would look like if this one example of order became a governing rule for many. They’re generalizing.
This got me wondering if this is part of political criticism’s ordinary work. Is this what we already do—imagine what would happen if a certain political model were generalized beyond the text? That doesn’t at all sound like our usual account of literary reading. But it does seem like actually a familiar strategy in literary studies.
Okay, so if we think about what’s happening in the disagreements between Robbins and David, it’s not about what Jane Eyre means; it’s about whether a European woman’s choice of meaningful work over marriage would necessarily come at the expense of non-European people. Theirs is a disagreement, in other words, about what social worlds hierarchical forms afford and how those forms interact in a general way beyond the specificity of this text.
So building on Robbins and David, I want to make a case for a generalizing political formalism might look like. Here, I’m calling it model thinking: the search for generalizable political forms that we could put to work for collective ends.
4. Model thinking
Why models? Models are made to repeat, to move across materials, media, scales. Think of a model of a city, shrinking and simplifying the vast and teeming reality. Or think of a model apartment, the same size as all the others but existing in more than one place. Some models remain imaginary and two-dimensional, like an architectural plan that never becomes a building. But models don’t have to be static: think of a board game like Pandemic or an economic theory or, where the task is to test out multiple scenarios. So how do models work? They deliberately abstract relationships so that we can grasp those relationships apart from their details. So: models are in some sense the opposite of singularities.
In all of these cases, the point of models is to be portable—from small to large, from possible to actual, from situation to scenario—and by moving across scales and media, they sharpen or to set in motion our knowledge of a reality that isn’t available to direct perception. Models allow us to imagine scenarios in which political forms, each with a limited number of affordances, interact.
Where should we look for the models we want to build? It’s my hypothesis that we can draw models from anywhere, but to unsettle our own norms, our own present, which I do think is really crucial work, it makes sense to look beyond our own world—to the past, to distant cultures, and to works of art. I don’t think it matters if the models were never built: they might be imaginary, utopian. What’s important is that the models allow us to play out the affordances of forms for collective life.
5. Sustainable models
In good singularizing fashion, I spent a lot of time in my own book on form looking for places where forms come undone. But that left a question that continued to bother me after I was finished: that is, if we don’t just want momentary experiences of resistance, we’ll need to understand how political forms endure. So which shapes and arrangements might effectively afford the sustaining of a just polis over time?
As a scholar of the novel, the first place I decided to look for social models that last was novel endings. The ends of nineteenth-century novels in particular, when they bring tensions and conflicts of the narrative to a close, are typically putting forward models which they imagine as enduring and stable. There’s Middlemarch and Bleak House, where women characters have a social impact that works outward in a slow and limited way from a married household at the center. Mary Barton and David Copperfield send characters away to the colonies. At the end of George Eliot’s Romola, the main character, a woman, lives with and supports the mistress and children of her dead husband, modeling a woman’s collective in place of conventional heterosexual marriage. There’s the ending of The Mill on the Floss, with its catastrophic erasure, Villette, with its single teacher, and North and South, where the workers and masters agree to sit down to regular meals together.
Now the novelistic endings I described here all imagine two kinds of forms as especially stable. First, all of these endings sketch out formal arrangements of space—the household, the settler colony, the schoolroom, the dining hall. Second, they offer generalizable forms of social interconnection—dyadic marriage, a community of women raising children, the single woman professional, and the meeting of men across classes in a regularized experience of shared embodiment.
Okay, so the novel is made up, and I don’t want to pretend it’s right about the world, but I do want to treat its understanding of forms as a kind of generalizable hypothesis, as a possible model for world-building. So I want to move back and forth between fictional and nonfictional instances of form. And I think if we do that, it looks as if the novel is really right about space—that spatial forms do afford stability. These forms often survive because they’re made of robust material substances, like rock or steel—built spaces like prison walls and city streets and sewers and classrooms—all of these are ways of organizing space that are built to last. But what else endures? The other social forms the novel’s endings imagine for us—like dyadic marriage or mealtime routines—aren’t so obviously indestructible as stone or steel. And yet I think the novel is right that these kinds of forms also last—some of them much, much longer than they should. Patterns like patriarchy and slavery, for example, have kept imposing their order on social relationships long after they’re no longer official institutions. How do these kinds of orders and arrangements survive?
Many of these, I would argue, endure through repetition. In fact, as Judith Butler and others have argued, race and gender norms are always citational (2). If someone said once that women were less rational than men, or if one person claimed that black men were dangerous, these statements wouldn’t matter at all, politically: what makes these claims powerful is that they are made again and again, sedimented into common sense, and accompanied by predictable rewards and punishments. Laws, norms, standards, stereotypes, customs, and hierarchies don’t create their painful effects without reiteration. So for better and for worse, one crucial formal element of political stability—and sustainability—is repetition.
Okay, so I’m drawing two provisional conclusions about the durability of forms out of the endings of novels. First, some arrangements of space last when they take durable material form—as built spaces like room and roads. Second, other forms endure through repetition, hardening into naturalized norms and habitual routines.
So far, I’ve been drawing my ideas from novels, but the point is to use these as models for understanding and building real collectivities. And in fact one of the most disturbing models of stability I know in the nonfictional world brings built space and repetition together. This is the case of redlining, the US government practice of defining certain neighborhoods as too risky for banks to invest in them. In 1934, the Federal Housing Administration guaranteed loans only in neighborhoods occupied by “the race for which they are intended” where local schools “should not be attended in large numbers by inharmonious racial groups.” This law prompted the building of mostly white neighborhoods in the suburbs. Redlining then shaped other forms, like the construction of mass transit systems and highways that linked downtowns to white suburbs but bypassed minority neighborhoods.
So racial hierarchy successfully organizes and regulates numerous other forms: it measures the concentration of black and white bodies in space; it draws boundaries around neighborhoods; it directs the connective routes taken by roads, mass transit, and the water supply; and these re-entrench poverty and segregation, which limits upward mobility for African Americans.
Racism is an intentional ideological force in the first place in this story, but then it organizes other forms. Those other forms, less intentionally, then work together over generations to reinforce racial hierarchy and the cycle of poverty. So in the case of redlining what we have is a kind of formal feedback loop, where norms, hierarchies, bounded spaces, and connective networks all work together to write racism into the built environment.
So the redlining example shows us the worst of repetition and stability. And yet, if we’re going to imagine and design sustainable forms for large-scale political life, I think we might learn something from the redlining model. If those forms can keep unjust relations in place over time, could they also be used to entrench just and equal relations?
6. Revaluing repetition
I’ve been thinking for a while about revaluing repetition in the field. On the one hand, repetition describes all the things we hate—cliches, routines, norms, mechanization, standardization. Repetitions are opposite of singularities. On the other hand, we know that in literary studies that repetition is crucial to the making of meaning. And I’m not persuaded myself that there can be sociality at all without repetition. There is, after all, no language without repetition: words themselves take on their meanings only through repeated usage, their intelligibility governed by the replicable rules of grammar. Ritual and symbol, skilled labor and artistic performance: none of these take shape except through—and as—repetition. And anyone who’s ever been soothed by the ritual of morning coffee, or refreshed by patterns of regular sleep, or has become a better musician by practicing a lot, might agree that even rigid habits may afford embodied pleasure as well as pain. So while there’s no question that the work of unsettling oppressive patterns is important and politically valuable, I’m increasingly convinced that it’s equally important to think about how a just society will depend on new habits and routines, and that we shouldn’t try to avoid repetition but instead to imagine the better repetitive patterns that could come to replace the troubling ones in place now.
So I’ve come to believe that we should turn to repetition for strategic reasons—for the effective building of collective infrastructures. But there’s something else at stake here too. I’ve been thinking more and more that our relentless emphasis on singularity is actually sustaining a troubling elitism at the heart of the field.
That is, our tendency to valorize distinctive events and experiences has had the consequence of devaluing ordinariness, and this has implications for the ways that we think about life and labor on the large scale. For example, if we refuse to pay attention to routines, then it will always be difficult for us to celebrate the reproduction and maintenance of daily life, so often women’s work—from literal reproduction to the ongoing care of bodies through the preparation of food, care for the sick, and the daily upkeep of environments. This kind of labor is not original or heroic or innovative. It is not in itself necessarily creative or radical or emancipatory. But no human sociality has ever taken shape without the repetitive work of reproducing and maintaining life. Similarly, struggles for environmental justice increasingly turn on the concept of sustainability, which is precisely the opposite of radical and disruptive transformation. So there might be a real political value to stability and conservation.
Even the exciting work of creativity might, as Virginia Woolf suggests, emerge out of a generalizable model of interacting spatial and repetitive forms: [slide] a built space (a room of one’s own) and a dependable rhythm of resources (500 pounds a year). So what I’m imagining is that even the most emancipatory polis of the future will require conserving and stabilizing routines: for example, regular distributions of food and clean water, norms for adequate shelter, smoothly running sewer systems, the maintenance of biodiversity, mass educational and health programs, and measured distributions of labor and wealth.
This is a case, in other words, for a return to the logic of the welfare state. Foucault was right that the modern state imposed all kinds of unfreedoms. But now the neoliberal models of freedom that have so often come to replace state power have brought injustices that are much more disturbing, at least to me, including labor precarity and vastly uneven distributions of resources. So what I’ve learned myself from the demise of the welfare state is that freedom from norms is only one value among others, and not the only or even always the primary one. And so I no longer believe that we can build infrastructures to sustain collective life by turning only to the emancipatory exception.
So: what if repetition is a crucial fact of collective experience that deserves our most careful attention even when it’s not particularly emancipatory? How could humanists cultivate a respect for the humdrum, including ordinary upkeep, daily labor, the regular demands of the body?
I think it might well mean a reading practice that pays less attention to originality, innovation, and singularity, and more attention to generalizable forms. Less close reading and specific historical conditions and more focus on the social models that different forms afford. Since different genres and media have different affordances, they won’t all help us to build the same kinds of social models. Architecture will point us to forms of spatial organization and arrangement, while laws will point us to forms for regulating behavior. So we’ll need to turn to lots of different forms for our models—not just the novel.
Now, in fact, I want to turn a problem of habit and routine that I am going to argue is especially difficult for the novel to model, and much easier for poetry—and that is labor. So I’m starting from the premise that the work of maintaining life in the polis will always be in part repetitive, involving regular distributions of food, for example. So work may always be in part repetitive. But I’d like to try to imagine models of work that although they involve repetition, don’t just fall into the deadening routines we associate with the industrial working class.
Now you might expect that industrial novels would be a great place to think about models of labor. But in fact there is surprisingly little attention in the nineteenth-century novel to the actual experience of working. We see some tired workers coming home in Hard Times and a brief description of the blacking factory in David Copperfield; there are a couple of scenes of women milking and reaping in Tess of the D’Urbervilles. All of these passages are short. Bronte’s Shirley and Gaskell’s Mary Barton turn into romantic love stories and leave the experience of industrial labor largely behind. Even the consummate industrial novel, North and South, never goes inside of the factory to describe the day-to-day tasks of the workers.
Why isn’t there more labor in the novel? Many scholars would turn to ideology for an explanation, but Elaine Scarry offers a formal justification instead. She argues that representing labor in all of its detail is difficult for the novel because plot can’t sustain too much repetition. It’s the essential nature of work to be “perpetual, repetitive, habitual,” Scarry writes (63), and narrative really can’t be too repetitive; plots have to be punctuated with crisis and incident. And that means that work—the dreary stream of most ordinary people’s lives—is simply too monotonous for plotted narratives to model for us.
Of course, some novels creatively push at the limits of their affordances and some, especially in the modernist period, deliberately avoid too much plotting. We could certainly spend time thinking of all the exceptions, but I want to start from a different formal premise: that plot just isn’t ideal for thinking repetitive labor, and it’s more productive to turn to forms that afford better models.
Nineteenth-century poets were certainly more likely to try to capture the ordinary patterns of labor than their novelist contemporaries, and I would argue that the reason for this is a formal one. Take, for example, Thomas Hood’s immensely popular poem from 1843, “The Song of the Shirt,” which was widely reprinted, illustrated, and put to music:
Work — work — work!
From weary chime to chime,
Work — work — work,
As prisoners work for crime!
Band, and gusset, and seam,
Seam, and gusset, and band,
Till the heart is sick, and the brain benumbed,
As well as the weary hand.
Hood clearly isn’t trying to avoid repetition—he’s milking it for all he can—to the point of deliberate monotony. Poetry affords at least two kinds of recurring formal patterns—the repetitions of rhythmic time and the echoes of rhyming sound. These two patterns are typically overlaid in a given poem, and you can see here how Hood makes them as repetitive as possible: the speaker both repeats the word “work” three times in the first line to establish the rhythm of the lines to follow, and then she also rhymes the word “work” with itself in lines 1 and 3. So the point is not to avoid repetition but to think with it and through it.
Of course, you might object, Hood is focusing our attention on a bad, oppressive model of labor—so it’s not surprising that he’s wallowing in repetitiveness. But I want to take this argument in a slightly different direction. I want to suggest that rhythm and rhyme do afford thinking about oppressive labor, but they also afford the prospect of more pleasant arrangements of work too. That is, if it’s true that there will always be some repetitive work to sustain human life, then poetic forms might be a great resource to help us to build better political models.
Christina Rossetti offers us a brief glimpse of this possibility in “Goblin Market”:
Early in the morning
When the first cock crow’d his warning,
Neat like bees, as sweet and busy,
Laura rose with Lizzie:
Fetch’d in honey, milk’d the cows,
Air’d and set to rights the house,
Kneaded cakes of whitest wheat,
Cakes for dainty mouths to eat,
Next churn’d butter, whipp’d up cream,
Fed their poultry, sat and sew’d;
Talk’d as modest maidens should… (10)
A pleasant variety intertwines with repetitive tasks here. There is rest as well as movement. Some of the labor involves imposing order. At other times the characters create pleasures for the body—cakes and butter and cream. Unlike Hood’s endless “work work work” in the present, Rossetti’s past participles at the start of lines – aired, kneaded, churned, fed – suggest that work can come to an end. There can be a break at the end of each task. Rossetti’s rhythm and rhyme scheme are famously irregular—there are some repetitions of both rhyme and meter here, but she doesn’t offer a predictable sequence (you can see there are couplets until last 3 lines). If you know the poem, you’ll know that there are rhymes throughout, but we can never predict exactly how or when they’ll happen. So repetition isn’t monotonous here: instead, it’s entwined with variety and rest.
We might notice too that the lines of varying lengths and the off-rhymes (sew’d and should) also suggest degrees of likeness and variation. In other words, we can see how repetitive poetic forms afford not just painful routines, but patterns of motion and rest; orderliness and sensual pleasure; and degrees of sameness and difference.
Of course, it’s quite possible that the agrarian idyll Rossetti evokes here never actually existed. Or that it wasn’t so great. Friedrich Engels argues that traditional farmworkers in England “were comfortable in their silent vegetation, and but for the industrial revolution they would never have emerged from this existence, which, cosily romantic as it was, was nevertheless not worthy of human beings” (3). But I want these poems to raise for us a different kind of question, a question not about the truth of the past but about the possibilities of the future, a utopian question, a generalizable question about the forms that labor could take.
That is, with the poetic rhythms of labor in mind, I want to ask you to answer this for yourselves:
If you could craft any rhythmic form for your own work day or week, what form would that be? how much would you want structure and how much freedom? How much activity and how much rest? Would you wish for variety, and if so, how might you apportion your time—what intervals might you imagine for teaching, for writing, for reading, for talking, for physical activity, for quiet reflection? And would you want this for yourself alone, or also for others?
Now I’m certainly willing to imagine that there’s a lot of diversity among us—some of us will want more structure, others more freedom, some more solitude and others more community. But I’m also going to bet that for most of us the ideal rhythm involves some variety as well as some repetition, some completed tasks and some ongoing maintenance, some ordering the environment and some making things for ours and others’ sensuous pleasure; a rhythm not of monotonous mechanical sameness but of variation as well as repetition, shifting from making and moving to sitting and talking.
So although I’ve been focusing on nineteenth-century novels and poems, it’s really important to me to stress that I’m not trying to limit my understanding to a particular moment in history. I understand rhythm and rhyme as formal resources with generalizable affordances that have been there across centuries and across cultures, certainly since ancient times. And what matters most to my own work here is that they’re still available to help us, now, to think about political models we might wish to build for the future. So poetry is functioning for me here not as a singular encounter with art or history but as an exercise in world-making, a thought experiment in creating models for life.
I also want to suggest that both Hood and Rossetti help us to formulate rich models for working lives more readily than, say, Gaskell in North and South, not because they’re aesthetically better or more radical writers but because poetic forms do better at thinking repetitive tempos; they’re better at understanding work as always partly an arrangement and distribution of lived time.
8. How much variety?
Now to scale up from Laura and Lizzie and your own workday to the world. What does an actual workday or work week look like for huge numbers of people? If some people want to write poetry, then who makes the food and cleans up? Do we all, as Marx suggests we might, “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, [and] criticise after dinner” (53)? In the very final part of my talk I want to turn to William Morris for a formal model. It’s one of his central values that work should be creative. He’s a ferocious opponent of the mind-numbing rhythms of factory labor. And yet, what Morris proposes is not only freedom from repetition. He also sketches a blueprint for the shaping of day-to-day rhythms, a formal model we could actually put into practice in the world.
There’s no need for endless painful work just to make the things we need, Morris argues, so in a good society, “the day’s work will be short” (32). There must always be time for rest. Crucial to the model, then, first, is a limit to the number of hours of work we do each day.
Morris then establishes a minimum threshold for variety. “A man might easily learn and practise at least three crafts, varying sedentary occupation with outdoor-occupation” (32). At least three different kinds of work, one indoors and quiet and one outdoors and active, and then a third that might be both or neither. To me, what seems most intriguing is that Morris is willing to put a specific number to the variation he calls for: at least three. Why three? Well, three has certain affordances. One kind of work all day every day would be dull drudgery; two would send us back and forth, like a see-saw; three is the minimum that would afford a real feeling of variety. Of course, three might not actually be enough for everyone, but, Morris suggests, it’s a good minimum to think with.
What we need to liberate us from deadening routine, he suggests, is not infinity but, much more practically, the number three.
In some ways, establishing a specific number as Morris does feels like the strangest and most uncomfortable thing that I as a humanist could do. I get the heebie-jeebies from this kind of standardizing. And in a moment of dominance by big data, it makes me feel really uncomfortable to resort to counting. But it’s Morris’s genius, I think, to join singularity and generalization, creativity and counting, freedom and standardization. He does the work here of trying to imagine the repeatable model that could best free us from too much repetition, the standard that would avoid standardization.
Would the workday for everyone be better if there were ample time for rest, and if all of us could do work that was divided among at least three kinds of craft? I think it would be much, much better than what we have now. But asking this question means setting aside my usual humanist’s interest in the exceptional and the distinctive and moving away from the goal of freedom to start instead imagining generalizable forms for ordinary living and working, following Morris in imagining minimum thresholds—enough food, enough rest. This is the kind of thinking that’s involved in establishing basic human rights. It’s the kind of thinking that regulates housing and safety for workers. It’s the work of the welfare state and more generally of government regulation—it’s the imperfect, constraining, but also necessary work of crafting the forms of public life.
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