15 October 2001 the re-education of everyone

I've been struggling for many months, almost a year, to read J W Goethe's Wilhelm Meister(Suhrkamp, New York 1983) which I've had on loan all this time from the Goethe Library in London. Each month I've renewed the loan as I was never able to read more than a small part of the two volumes, about 800 pages in all. But not because of its length - there is something about the content and the form that causes me again and again to stop reading it - perhaps because it is so dull, or so heavy or even naive, even silly, in places. Yet I am convinced that I should persist with it. But now, having set myself to read only about a tenth (or was it a twentieth?) of it in randomly chosen samples, I'm just beginning to like it, at least in its general form and intention.

What gave me a clue was the introduction to Part Two (which the chance sampling brought to my notice - there is no introduction to Part One). There I came across what the editor, Jane K Brown, sees as its virtues. I can't remember her words but I got the general impression that Goethe wrote with the intention of making it impossible to guess, from what one has read, what is likely to happen on the next page. That would account for my frequent inability to continue reading. And if Goethe had that intention he must have had a good reason - so persist, I said to myself!

And there was another helpful impression that I got, partly from Jane Brown's introduction and partly from the random samples: that Goethe wrote Part Two at least with the intention of mixing fiction and reality in such a way that the process of reading the book becomes part of the story. At this I feel some enthusiasm. And now I look back at what Jane Brown actually wrote:

Wilhelm does little more in the novel than read and listen to stories... In this respect he embodies the true plot of the novel, which is the action of the reader as perceiving and reflecting consciousness. The formal complexity of the novel, then, and its apparent incoherence, understood as multiplicity of perspective, constitutes its essential coherence. Wilhelm Meister's Journeyman Yearsis an experiment in narrative form whose success could only be recognised in the wake (!) of novels like Ulyssesor The Waves.(page 9)

And now, having found something to inspire me in The Journeyman Years,I find also that it helps me to compose, or to feel my way towards, the connected fiction (or fictions?) that I've been incubating for years... which now, as a future diary,is at last taking form, I hope.

But there are some Goethean specifics, as well as these generalities, that help me with this new/old venture.

Somewhere, in my random sampling of the two volumes, I realised that Goethe is speaking against generalism and in favour of specialisation in a way that seemed at first to undermine the essential point of my writing: my vision of decentral and of despecialisation that I have called creative democracy.

Wilhelm meets a wise character who advises him against the empty generalities of the scholar or dilletante and praises the coherent and connected nature of specialised practical knowledge. But I saw, on re-reading that section, that what the wise man recommends is not division of labour, with its alienation and its narrowing of perception, but the connective wholeness of a complete craft, in which the maker makes everything herself or his, in which work is not sub-divided into sub-human fragments but is given whole to a single bodymind to connect and to complete, at the slow and expensive pace of handwork.

And here we come to three points at the centre of this argument:

1. the slow and expensive pace and high quality of (connective, or wholistic) handwork

2. the faster and cheaper pace (perhaps a hundred times faster and cheaper) and inherently lower quality of mechanised labour, in which each person does only the mental work of controlling a non-muscular power source which repeats again and again a sub-action of what was the complete handwork

3. the even faster and cheaper pace but higher quality of automatic production in which computers and non-muscular power sources are reintegrated into coherent new processes which involve no one in sub-divided labour or in sub-divided thought!

That was the main insight I gained in the nineteen-fifties*, as I worked with some of the early computers and automations, and which lead me slowly to the further and more cultural aspects of this change which have yet to be realised.

So am I now at the point (perhaps aided by the insights and literary experiments of Goethe) when I can take the next step? There is no answer but to try - so now I must do so. I hope to make the attempt soon in the future diary.May these words be the link!

Later: Not happy with all this, feeling that there is still something missing, I am wondering if it is to do with the re-education (or perhaps the de-schooling as Ivan Illich** called it) of everyone - out of assumptions appropriate to book knowledge and into assumptions appropriate to - what shall I call it? ... direct knowledgeperhaps, such as can exist and be enacted via computernet?

I can just feel people shying away from, or condemning, that notion immediately (as a contradiction) but I will accept it for the moment and see what other thoughts it provokes.

My first thought is to ask how the connectiveness of public life can be experienced and acted upon by everyone (and not just by professionals). And then to imagine, if I can, the kinds of software (the softopia!) in or with which each person can re-experience a new version of collective identity, not of small tribes but of all the people alive, and also all our predecessors, and all our successors... As soon as I get to writing of such totalities, such impractical extremes as they may seem at first, I feel inspiration return as the world of Goethe, and of Descartes, and of all the Renaissance and the printing press and the steam engine, and what they led to, shrinks immediately into antiquity as a warmer and wider and more human picture takes its palace, I mean place!

That's not an informative answer to my question but it's enough for these last minutes of today before I go to bed.

*There is a fuller account of this insight re craftwork, mechanisation and automation in the printed version of the internet and everyone.

** Ivan D Illich, Deschooling Society, Open Forum, Calder & Boyars, London 1971.