The Spooky School

Glasgow at the turn of the 20th Century was bohemian, and if it weren’t for early 19th Century Parisian bohemians, turn of the century Glaswegian culture would define the term. More to the point, Glaswegian culture, by means of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, defines architecture to this very day. If you live in or around a city in Europe or North America which grew up before World War II, you see Charles Rennie Mackintosh everywhere, both in architectural design and in architectural embellishment, particularly the Mackintosh rose. You’ve seen that stylized rose everywhere, so much so that you probably don’t know you’re seeing it.

G112-1MackintoshRoseWhere did it come from, and how did it get such a wide distribution? This design, along with many of his design ideas, exploded into the arts and architecture world, as you might imagine happened if you study this specimen more closely, and perhaps if you study other specimens of the rose which he designed. All of Europe breathed a sigh of relief when that tension was released, and the relationship brought to bear by this explosion continued for twenty years, before Mackintosh succumbed to depression and tongue cancer in 1927.

Architectural design throughout the western world had become sclerotic and quite formalistic, suppressing artistic expression and craftsmanship. There were signs of growth and creativity, with such notable patrons as William Morris, but those who were trying to create new schools of architectural design were confined to certain pockets, quite literally confined, bound by physical walls within which individual creative thinking might be encouraged, but, aside from certain trade magazines, such thinking was all moot. In these terms, the political bound the individual so that he could not express. If he expresses as he is compelled to express from within himself, he can expect to lose his ability to eat.

Nevertheless, the Celtic revival movement was percolating, along with the English Arts and Crafts movement, but there was as yet no spearhead to bring the incredible talents into the larger professional world. Plenty of these artisans, however, were quite aware of their predicament, and they reacted quite predictably: they formed schools within schools.

In 1889, Charles Rennie Mackintosh was introduced to one of these schools within a school while he was working as an assistant for an architectural firm. They were a group of young women attending art school who called themselves the Immortals. Frances and Margaret Macdonald were among this group, and they struck up quite a relationship with Charles and his colleague Herbert McNair. The four of them began to collaborate, becoming known to the outside world as The Four, and the outside world began to take notice.

At first, their work was mocked and ridiculed, but, as they say in sports, “They don’t boo nobodies.” Something about their work had struck a chord and a nerve, so they were encouraged by the response. They received positive response to their work as well, from these other pockets of architectural bohemianism, particularly in Germany and Vienna. Being sensitive artist-types, however, they withdrew into a world of their own making, creating in their expressions a symbolic world whose interpretation is known only to the four of them. Soon, professional journals began to offer professional critique of their work, and they began to win prizes for submissions to open exhibitions. They gained no small notoriety throughout the architectural world as the principal representatives of the Glasgow School.

They relied so heavily on distorted female figures, flowers, and tears that outsiders began to call the Glasgow School the “Spooky School.” The Four had triumphed, but, as a foursome, they had reached their zenith; individual expression was still subverted to the political, albeit only four of them. Moreover, Herbert married Frances and moved away, leaving Charles and Margaret to look at each other, shrug, and marry. Their collaboration was remarkable.

It was the rose, however, Charles’ Glasgow Rose, which he made his own, that revolutionized the architectural world. Mackintosh had found freedom within this little school within a school within a school, developing a language to communicate with them and only them so that only those whom he trusted most could advise, criticize, and encourage him. Within that conclave he gestated, and from that conclave he was born with a brand new rose in hand.

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Part Seen, Imagined Part (1896)

For this post I leaned heavily on my repeated readings of John McKean’s Charles Rennie Mackintosh: Architect, Artist, Icon, and also Fanny Blake’s Essential Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Page numbers by request.

Metternich Against the SJW

Klemens von Metternich had had quite enough.

“You there,” he said, pointing at me, “take notes.”

I had never met the man before, but my peasant ancestors would be ashamed if I was insubordinate to a noble. So I opened up Evernote and started a new note.

“We are faced today by an onslaught of frivolity which puts the most arrogant dandy of my day to shame in utter unlearnedness,” Metternich began.

“Should I write down this part?” I asked. He glared at me. “Should I write down this part…Prince Metternich, uh, sir?”

“Just get the spirit of the thing, the useful points,” he said with a dismissive wave of the hand, “we’re making a plan, not a speech, but I’m working up to it.”

“Yes, Prince Metternich.” I typed “frivolity”.

“The spirit of the age,” he said, attempting to return smoothly to his little meandering speech, “is frivolity. Thirty years ago or so, there was a system in place. A system of public discourse. It was not a great system. It was not a good system. But it was a system, and for the most part it did what it was supposed to.”

“But by that time, the decade of the 1980s, the cracks in the system had already begun to multiply and the fate of the thing was, in many ways, unavoidable. Alternative media became too economical, and too widespread, for their betters to effectively police.”

“Still, we might have soldiered on with something like the old way for another generation or two. But no one saw the Internet coming. We were scared enough of the desktop publishing trend, and still we were blindsided by this vast apparatus of mass discursivity.”

“Now the old way is effectively dead. The gates are not just open, they are broken. The gatekeepers sit atop the rubble of their great castles, but the siege has already happened, and they have already lost. The public conversation has escaped anyone’s control, and the resulting anarchy was entirely predictable to anyone who bothered to pay attention.”

“The old system cannot be salvaged. Even I have to admit this. This makes Napoleon and the virus of revolution that spread during my day seem tame and containable. We need a new system, though of course we must take what wisdom we can from what has come before. Nevertheless, we face fresh challenges which demand fresh responses.”

“This is the important part,” he said to me, and I started a bulleted list.

“The nation lacks a political will to solve this problem by political means, at least for now. So we must take it upon ourselves as the best of the citizenry to seize control of the situation ourselves.”

“The first great lever available to those operating outside of government is money. Currently, the biggest fomenters of disorder, those who do it professionally, are highly dependent upon automated ad networks for a substantial part of their income.”

“There is an increasing push for categorizing content by appropriateness, with several firms offering their services to do so. If this categorization could be centralized—and I suspect it ultimately will be—it could be a very useful tool for maintaining order. Those sites that are most militant in their tactics…those who produce clickbait intended to cultivate the very worst of our uncultivated selves….will be downgraded as inappropriate content, effectively barring them from the biggest spenders in advertising. There’s still direct buying, of course. But it will still be a means of applying substantial financial pressure. And the number of direct buyers are so small in number, in terms of holding agencies, that there may be a solution there as well, if we can seize control of the big industry standards groups from within.”

“The problem is the sheer openness of the web. We can cut off the professionals at the knees, but these…these…social justice warriors…largely emerge from the panoptic cults adored by the masses. Even if every great Internet company colluded with us, anyone can set up a website from anywhere, and say anything they please, no matter how reckless or irresponsible. Moreover, I suspect that the crowdfunding sites will be harder to get to see our way. If we successfully formed a political cartel with them to block the worst of these people, the SJW could very well launch their own. It might make funding harder, but these people are cockroaches; they don’t need much to survive on, and it only takes the survival of a handful to result in a full scale infestation.”

“What we need is a group dedicated to discrediting these people as soon as they crop up, if possible even sooner than that. They are invariably the young, the frivolous who think that they know everything as soon as they learn the smallest thing in a highly incomplete manner. They take to the Internet at the first opportunity to spout off their point of view. It should be predictable who is likely to be a threat long before anything they do goes viral; if we could actively discredit such people ahead of time we might just stand a chance at establishing a new order in this era of perpetual disorder, and a new set of legitimate masters in an era of illegitimacy.”

“I think that companies like Google, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and Reddit will be of service, to some extent.”

“Are you sure about that?” I piped in, “Uh, are you sure about that Prince Metternich? They seem highly sympathetic to the very people you’re trying to persecute.”

“Persecute!” He spat, but then decided to move on, “In my day I would rather send the petty merchants who run such businesses to the gallows than collaborate with them, but a general must go to war with the soldiers he has. These companies may superficially appear to share a common politics with our enemies, but in the end they do not want disorder or disruption. Order is much better for business. When their platforms are used as vehicles for attacking private individuals, exposing their personal information publicly, and vilifying them, it makes life more difficult for them than when such platforms are just used for gazing mindlessly at cat photos. Moreover, increasingly it is their own employees and their own management who are under attack. They will help us out of self-defense, if nothing else.”

“But if I may, Prince Metternich, they are just software companies, not political entities,” I replied.

“Oh my dear boy,” Metternich said with a humorless laugh, “where have you been? Never mind the escalating lobbying presence in Washington these companies are underwriting, they have embraced their political nature ever since the SOPA fight at the latest. Having always seen their users as leads from which to milk ad dollars, they now also see them as leads for taking specific political action, such as writing a congressman. Why, just recently a car service had a bill attempting to regulate it killed simply by inserting a message about it into their app. Wake up, child, these companies have been political entities for a very long time.”

“Well, that’s depressing.”

“Indeed. But it may be our only hope, in the end.”

“This all seems very…how shall I put it…evil,” I remarked.

“Only because you are stuck in the intellectual childishness of your era, in which it is assumed that freedom means the ability to do anything one wishes whenever one wishes to. My generation knew better. Before you can have freedom, you must have order. A disorderly freedom destroys itself, and worse, it threatens civilization itself. Freedom must be contained, kept within certain boundaries. It must play nice with authority or it must be made to.”

“It still seems pretty evil. Also quite unlikely.”

“I don’t recall asking for your opinion,” he sniffed, “if you’ll please email me your notes, your betters will take it from here.”

And so I did, and he went on his way to establish nouveau regime médiatiques.

The Sacrificial Rites of the Panopticon

At the lowest point of my ruin, I sought the council of the wisdom of the ages.

There were many ages, and so many wisdoms, and many voices which pronounced them.

When I arrived at their agora at the appointed time, they invited me to tell my tale.

“Like many of my generation,” I began, “I saw plainly that injustice was everywhere. We were sold a bag of lies as children, the Lie that the old prejudices had been put to bed. Oh there had been progress, to be sure. But mostly we had just driven the prejudices underground. No, not even underground—just out from view. The same prejudiced white patriarchs ran everything, they just called themselves feminists and colorblind now.

“Like my peers, I saw that the task of all right thinking people was to publicly unmask these frauds for what they are.

“Our community, our conspiracy of progress, rewarded the successful unmaskers with glory and—and this is where the trouble began—visibility.

“It was one thing when it was people I had no association with. My group talked frequently about those luminaries who had made their names by dragging bigots out of the shadows and into the light of the panopticon, that great leveler.

“But one day a girl, who I had known for about as long as I had taken an interest in politics and political groups online, had a photo of hers go viral. It was a picture of a man at a local Starbucks who had talked down to her the way all patriarchs do—invoking all of the little soft coercions that women have to put up with on a daily basis. She captioned the photo in a way that obscured, but did not completely hide, the man’s face. The caption explained how he had treated her as less than his equal; it was very succinct and got the message across.

“The photo spread widely, and the man’s identity was uncovered by overzealous people who wanted desperately to contribute to the cause. He lost his job, and had to get an unlisted number so that the phone calls from people sick of putting up with men like him would not reach him. He was sacrificed at the altar of the panopticon, and it launched my friend’s career in activist media.

“She had less and less time for our relatively obscure little corner of the web, and I came to envy her. I wanted to catch up with her, to go to the place she had managed to arrive at.

“I am ashamed to admit it, but in retrospect it is obvious to me that the desire for attention and popularity among right thinking people was more important to me than advancing the cause.

“It is obvious because of what I did. I took several pictures of someone who simply looked like you would imagine a bigot would. In his 50s, a bit overweight but not extremely so, a smug look on his face. I captioned the pictures with quotes attributed to him, but I made them up. He never said them.

“You have to understand, men wouldn’t treat me the way they did women. I didn’t have the same opportunities to unmask that they did. I had to make my own unmasking. How else could I contribute? How else could I advance the cause?

“Of course with the help of my friend, it got a lot of attention. And of course, it ruined this man’s life. But it got me my start, it turned me into a person of some influence. I brought this man to the panopticon, and it did not reject my offering. Doesn’t that make it OK? So many saw my pictures and had their commitment to the cause validated. Doesn’t that excuse what I did? And what of the real bigots that I used my influence against from then on—doesn’t that count for something?”

One of the youngest voices spoke up. “If you came here to find excuses, you came to the wrong place. By the mere asking of the question, it’s already obvious what the answer is.”

I was crestfallen.

An older voice chimed in, “What is worse is that it’s clear you didn’t come here to make excuses. You didn’t come here because you saw the error of your ways or began to doubt the justice of your injustice. You came here because of your own misfortune.”

They were both right.

“At the peak of my popularity, I had it down to a system. Less visible people would bring me the materials and the information, and I would use my position to expose the bigots they encountered in their lives. Surely this matters—whatever my beginnings, I helped people unmask real bigots in the end. And I helped many of them to achieve their own rise to prominence!”

“Please cease wasting our time with such feeble self-justifications,” the young voice replied with contempt. I lowered my head and continued.

“From the beginning, our enemies worked to tarnish my name and bury me. They attempted to preserve the good name of the original man I had sacrificed, and use it as proof of the cynicism in our movement. As if theirs was not the most cynical of all! Pretending that prejudice had truly been abolished, pretending that we, the unmaskers, were the prejudiced ones!

“But the movement doesn’t put stock in those people. No right thinking person would.

“My undoing was one of my own. I made a remark—an innocent one, if understood in its proper context. But an upstart within our own movement took it out of context and made it the basis of a long, vitriolic post about me. The post went viral, and was also aggressively spread by our enemies, who were too eager to see me fall. I tried to point out this fact, tried to argue that it was them who was behind it. But it wasn’t. I know it. Everyone knew it—the blogger had been active in our circles for far too long, if not very visible. The archive, their public social media history, were all there for people to see; the hoax would be far too elaborate even for those people.

“Soon, my very name became synonymous with prejudice and hypocrisy.

“Once it was clear that the damage was done, I began to withdraw from the panopticon. I deleted my social media accounts. My blog remains but an abandoned archive, with one last letter to the movement at the top, apologizing for my perceived wrongs.

“I fell into complete isolation, and in time, I found my way here.”

“And why did you come to us? What is it you want to ask us?” a much older voice asked, though his tone implied he knew the answer.

“I want to know what I should do next, but…”

“But?”

“…but I also want to know if what I did had any meaning. Was I right to serve the cause by any means necessary? Was it just frivolous fame-seeking? If my heart was often in the right place, and I did a lot of good, does that mean anything?”

They were silent for a long time.

And then the oldest among them spoke.

“Those who live by the river know that it can become a rapids as quickly as it can become a gentle stream,” the wise elder intoned, “yet in time we forget, and imagine we progress only by our own paddling. In the end it is the river that carries us, one way or another.”

“You worry too much about the river,” said a younger, but still quite ancient voice, “when you should worry more about the life you have made, the state of your soul. When you imagine you can divert the river any way you please, you lose sight of yourself and you are just as likely to be swept away when the current becomes unfavorable.”

“Must you always come out and say it?” the eldest snapped.

“I don’t understand. Do you mean that I shouldn’t have lied? That the whole enterprise is invalid? And what should I do next?”

“We’ve said all we will say,” another voice said firmly but not unkindly, “we won’t hold your hand. If you have to have it spelled out for you, you couldn’t hope to understand it.”

And so I left, to ponder the fate of a vessel that was smashed upon the rocks.