means and ends in factoreality

The aesthetics of efficiency dominates The Factory in celebrating whatever achieves more with less. It is governing corridors and office spaces, the technical infrastructure, the human interactions therein, and the resulting artifacts. Questing for efficiency, The Factory distinguishes sharply between internal means and impacting ends, achieving these ends without too much care for the corresponding means beyond their utility towards these very ends. This distinction between means and ends bears a paradox, since on the one hand, The Factory’s highly divided labor renders many essential tasks as pure means with no end in itself, while on the other hand, the creativity required to tackle these tasks successfully demands a dedication that is incompatible with pure means: Factory workers should identify themselves with their tasks and consider them not as a means but an end in itself.

Some of Morris’ rhetoric, envisioning a society where everybody is working essentially for self-perfection, is not too dissimilar to what The Factory is promising its workers. To set free our creativity, we are given leeway and are encouraged to work playfully. As a socialist, Morris wanted to harbor as many people as possible in what he considered a good and worthy life, since he believed that “each man [should be] striving for the happiness of the whole and therefore for his own through the whole.”1 While my factoreality is certainly not driven by socialistic ideals, it is still attempting to establish a somewhat limited utopia that is inspiring as an environment. In its limitation and resulting exclusiveness, The Factory is more akin to Warhol’s approach: He never attempted to include all and everybody in his Factory but employed his Factory’s exclusive otherness to turn it into a focal point of its time. Warhol did not rebel at all against an increasingly mechanistic world, on the contrary, he employed its machinery for his ends, and he was willing to turn himself into a means of production, saying “I think everybody should be a machine. I think everybody should like everybody.”2 Thus, Warhol seemed to be less concerned with the internals of his Factory, as long as it proved to be a working platform which enabled him to launch projects impacting society at large. Interestingly, it was Morris who was engaging into industrial-scale production whereas Warhol was facing mechanization at best conceptually. Comparing both, it seems that Morris wanted to change society with his own Factory as model of life and work, while Warhol wanted to impact the world with his Factory as a source of otherness. Since today’s Factory is industrializing creation, it combines Morris’ utopian aspirations with Warhol’s pragmatism in order to develop a sustainable model for a creative life while achieving impact at large.

encoded means and ends

The streamlined surface of The Factory’s externally visible end-products extends to its internal means, which provide efficient and scalable platforms, focused on central features in disregard of issues deemed inessential. The conceptual simplicity of many tool interfaces in the infrastructure conceals much of the underlying complexity from other Factory workers. At the same time, these tools are sometimes surprisingly bare bone, such that a comparison to some other development groups makes me smile about all these lengthy, somewhat charged discussions of whether to use this hottest or that newest tool: The Factory has been testament to the fact that development tools need to provide a basic functionality in a reliable and scalable manner but nothing more. Everything else is distracting, since not tools but engineers utilizing them make the difference.

Strikingly different from these slick tool interfaces, code interfaces tend to be complicated, dealing with many cases that have been added incrementally on a per need basis, often directly by those who required them. Although such changes are checked by the respective code owners, often the curation is lacking that would be necessary to turn individual case-by-case solutions into orthogonally organized and coherent structures. Thus, the code used to build all these slim tools and products tends to the opposite of that — and insofar The Factory’s means and ends differ heavily. Two or three weeks ago I started to think about this difference upon realizing that I had never come across Factory code that impressed me as particularly elegant. Elegance refers to beauty arising from clarity in succinctness, making a point without impertinence in an air of effortlessness; elegance fascinates with the implicit presence of the absent. The succinctness of an elegant solution leads to an informed clarity, where explicitness is traded for gestures that speak clearly without saying too much. Even if such gesturing is unambiguous, its proper understanding requires some contextual knowledge; thus, elegance arises in reference to a shared tradition and is more likely to apply to established designs than breaking innovations: Elegant designs are sophisticated and demand some level of sophistication to appreciate them, while the bleeding edge comes with a crudeness and violence that may be disruptive but is not most beautiful.

The Factory’s code is not written with elegance but clarity and explicitness as central quality objectives. The resulting code does not hide complexity but makes this complexity as accessible as possible. However plain such code might be, it yields some of the technically most innovative artifacts on the planet. At the same time, The Factory’s code is far from arbitrary and has to adhere strict and rigorous guidelines to ensure its readability across all Factory workers. The enforced coding style is bleak without trickery or surprises, completely verbose, at times even redundant, willingly avoiding language features that have been standard for more than a decade. This readability is quintessential to an understanding of The Factory’s processes: Every Factory worker has not only access to almost all Factory code but has to read and extend the reused code built upon. Many other places have a more structured internal release cycle where each release yields libraries with (hopefully sufficiently) documented interfaces. The clients of these libraries should — at least ideally — not know much about the libraries’ internal structure. At The Factory, such an approach is not even attempted. Instead, there is often some rough documentation lagging behind the code, such that the only true documentation of the code is the code itself.

These means are set-up in support of The Factory’s ends: The accessibility and readability of the code enables fast paced iterations, such that The Factory’s code bases are in flux without ever truly stabilizing. Such ongoing improvements should — on a first glance — lead to very refined solutions, but the stability to cultivate a lasting tradition is mostly not there. The changes on a system never converge as The Factory’s systems typically deprecate too quickly in an inherently discontinuous development approach: Systems are not evolved but rewritten such that each individual system is either not yet stable or already abandoned. On the other hand, the development tools and their enforced rigorous testing policies ensure a stable system behavior to the outside. This approach is rooted in a culture striving for brisk and quick impact, geared not so much for developing but building systems.

beauty in the kingdom of ends

What counts in factoreality is an impacting launch, and thus quite unsurprisingly, nobody I have met in The Factory has ever bragged about beautiful code: Kant wrote that beauty — or more precisely, an aesthetic judgment and the beauty encountered therein — arises through the representation of purposiveness ungoverned by a purpose or end.3 He clarifies this purposiveness by writing further that “an object or a state of mind or even an action […] is called purposive merely because its possibility can only be explained and conceived by us in so far as we assume at its ground a causality in accordance with purposes”.4 The ability to judge aesthetically depends, according to Kant, on what he calls free play5 of the faculties. When imagination and understanding are in free play, imagination conforms to understanding in being ready to apply concepts to sensed objects, while on the other hand, imagination is not constrained to any specific concept being applied. This amounts to “free lawfulness” or “lawful freedom” 5 where our faculties follow rules without any specific rule in place. Following Kant, this is not only fundamental to beauty but also to empiricism as a whole, as free play enables us to conceive new rules and concepts, rendering nature in lawfully adhered empirical concepts.

Such a free play requires an inner autonomy that frees the faculties not only from outer constraints but also from a fixed, hierarchical structure between them: In normal cognition, our understanding determines imagination in providing concepts to guide and harness our experiences. This mode of cognition leads — according to Kant — to determining judgments in applying universal concepts to experienced particulars whereas free interplay enables reflective judgments finding universals for particulars. This lawful freedom is reminiscent of the first formulation of Kant’s categorical imperative: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law without contradiction.”7 To follow this imperative, we must be able to enact our own maxims and give laws to ourselves, i.e., we must have a free will. Conversely, Kant also argues that a free will must posit its own laws, since without laws no will would be able to act at all. This leads to reciprocity inasmuch as an autonomous, free will is necessary and sufficient to establish moral self-legislation. Thus to Kant, free will, autonomy, and self-legislation are mutually conditioning each other and seem to enable both, moral behavior and judgments of beauty.

The third formulation of the categorical imperative relates self-legislation to the kingdom of ends: “Therefore, every rational being must so act as if he were through his maxim always a legislating member in the universal kingdom of ends.” Kant states here that we should give ourselves maxims that are universal to all rational beings who are all ends in themselves and therefore partake in the kingdom of ends. This is remarkable since Kant requires autonomous self-ruling as precondition of both, moral behavior and judgments of beauty, but links the former to a kingdom of ends while the latter should arise in disinterested purposiveness without infliction of any purpose or end. Both notions, the kingdom of ends and purposive purposelessness, share the end in itself as common ground: Instead of considering other people as a means to an end, we should consider them as ends in themselves, and instead of relating an object to some outside purpose it should befit, we should relate to the object itself. Thus — according to Kant — the differentiation between means and ends prevents us from nothing less than behaving morally and experiencing beauty. On the other hand, an autonomy strong enough to loosen the relationship between understanding and imagination, a self-governance creating its own rules, and a careful treatment of the immediate as an end in itself reinforce each other and might enable a morally guided life with the capacity to experience beauty.

idealism and practicality in possibility and genesis

The kingdom of ends is an ideal that is practically impossible to achieve — which does not mean, one should not strive to get as close as possible. However, Kant discusses neither how one could become autonomous nor how one could deal with situations that do not satisfy ideal conditions. Kant only discusses how autonomy and self-governance make a moral behavior and judgements of beauty possible. More generally speaking, Kant discusses in his critical philosophy conditions enabling possible experience but fails to discuss genetic condition of real experience, i.e., how a person becomes able to behave morally and experience beauty. This line of criticism goes back to Salomon Maimon who attacks Kant’s cognitive dualism (requiring understanding and imagination to come together in experience).8 Thus, in the case of creating art, Kant refers to a capacity of genius that cannot be learned but is innate to an artist who is not even able to explain how this genius guides the own artistic production.9 This subconsciousness seems to guarantee for Kant that a genius is not following any predetermined rules but is creating them in the process. However, the requirement of disinterest in proper judgments of beauty also leads to an inversion of Kant’s egalitarianism: While Kant ascribed the ability to enjoy beauty to all humans, the required disinterest (and in extension: freedom from work for a living) restricts access to such judgements to the wealthy connoisseur.10 Since creating art is certainly also work and since artists need to live on the proceeds of their artistic work, artists take an interest in their oeuvre beyond its creation. Therefore, such a reading of Kant leads to the curious situation that judging beauty and creating it are mutually exclusive.

The question of how art comes into being in the context of more practical living conditions leads back to William Morris and Andy Warhol as practicing artists. Since Morris was facing the needs of a large scale production, he had to balance idealistic ends and practical means.11 Although Morris stands via Marx in the tradition of German idealism rooted in Kant, Kant’s ideal of possible beauty contrasts starkly with Morris’ practicality in manufacturing beautiful objects.12 According to Morris, good work should fulfill four criteria, namely that tasks should 1) have an obvious end, 2) be of short duration, 3) offer variety, and 4) be performed in pleasant surroundings.13 Thus, instead of ruling out ends, Morris argues for ends that are accessible and varying to workers such that each worker can identify her- or himself — even if only at varying degrees — with these very ends. The arts offer to Morris a way to achieve this goal when he says that “the aim of those who look on the popular arts seriously is, that we should be masters of our work.”14 In his emphasis of a creative and thereby re-creative work, Morris refers to Ruskin who “teaches us that art is the expression of man’s pleasure in labour; that it is possible for man to rejoice in his work” and “that beauty is once again a natural and necessary accompaniment of productive labour.”15 Ruskin in turn explains that such a joyful and pleasurable work requires a playful spirit, writing that “a healthy manner of play is necessary in order to a healthy manner of work.”16

singularity and iterability in playfulness

The notion of playfulness already emerged in Kant’s free interplay of understanding and imagination and is a key notion in Morris’ notion of useful work. In playfulness, we give ourselves rules which we subsequently play along with: We enjoy the freedom we gain by enacting these rules to establish a structure which proliferates our agency therein; and in free play, the structure of the play itself brings forth new rules, spawning a time of self-legislation. This process is at the same time singular and iterative, since the emerging rules and resulting events are unpredictable and thus singular while the process of determination by rules and creation of new rules is iterative and a play as a whole is — with singular results — repeatable. Thus, singularity and iterability are both inscribed into playfulness.

The polarity between singularity and iterability was according to Jacques Derida driving a whole generation of French philosophers in the late ’60ies,17 called by Helene Cixous the “incorruptibles”, including Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida himself.18 The central challenge haunting these philosophers was the polarity between singularity and iterability, i.e., between the living organism and the inorganic machine. This polarity might have always been at the core of what it means to be human, but the rising power and autonomy of our machines has rendered this opposition in hitherto unknown starkness and urgency. The enlightenment encouraged the human subject on the grounds of reason to pursue an individual life — pushing for a reasonable, i.e., reproducible and thus iterable foundation for a unique and thus singular life. This contradiction has been underlying modernity since its very inception in the enlightenment. Pivotal for modernity’s manifestations as modernism and postmodernism, Morris and Warhol can be understood as artists who consciously entered and exploited the tension between singularity and iteratability in their work. While Morris wanted to preserve the singularity of the living experience in a practical production environment of craftsmanship during the rise of machine, Warhol wanted to explore the effect of machine-like iterability in an idealized, artistic environment at a time when the triumph of mechanization already gave way to digitalization.19

Derrida thought that deconstructing the polarity between the singular and iterated would lead to a monstrous figure.20 While a singular iteration or an iterable singularity might be impossible to create, the domain of playfulness is a candidate to make these two poles compatible: With the singular and iterated ascribed, playfulness creates an end in itself and provides for its duration an environment of reflective self-legislation, practically establishing an ideal field of experimentation and self-discovery to harbor moments of sheer beauty.

playful metamodernism in corporate culture

Our time might be a time of play that goes beyond Morris’ fierce defense of humane singularity and Warhol’s adaption of machine-like iterability. Instead of fighting for either side, we playfully oscillate between both extremes, enjoying the uniqueness of the events constituting our live and work while being conscious about their repeatability and redundancy. Associating the singular with modernisn and iterability with postmodernism, we arrive at the cultural condition of metamodernism, as introduced by Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker.21 In metamodernism, we oscillate between both poles, pursuing our dreams with the utopian idealism of modernism while avoiding being lost in these very dreams by relating to the pragmatism of postmodernism: Metamodernism encourages us to live consciously as if our dreams could be turned into stable realities, avoiding delusional naiveness as much as cynical pragmatism. This leads to a dynamic position between the poles of modernism and postmodernism, regarding the former as sincere, naive, truth seeking, and optimistic, and the latter as ironic, knowing, relativistic, and doubtful. Thus, the metamodernist manifesto defines its subject as “the mercurial condition between and beyond irony and sincerity, naivity and knowingness, relativism and truth, optimism and doubt, in pursuit of a plurality of disparate and elusive horizons.”22

The Factory I am working for is a profit making company and operates as efficiently as possible. Since The Factory is predominately building software systems, efficiency and optimization are its working principles and guide the design of its software procedures. This spirit of optimization combined with the ability to automatize iterative processes results in a disdain for manual repetitions of iterable work and leads to company procedures that are equally optimized. After all, The Factory has built some of the most advanced machines ever envisioned and has thereby created one of the largest capacities for automated iteration in existence. The primacy of efficiency does not only differentiate between means and ends but also asks for an environment that stimulates creative work resulting in the singular and exceptional, establishing playfulness as one of The Factory’s core values: The openness in office spaces and code repositories is designed to stimulate chance encounters and random interactions that lead to the formation of ad-hoc structures, some resulting in lasting efforts, some leading to nowhere consequential. The latter is accepted as necessary cost to create something truly new. In treating this cost as overhead, it becomes a matter of business efficiency that limits the end-less totalization of the kingdom of ends and thereby brings forth the metamodernist oscillation.

This contradiction between business interests and a work for its own sake characterizes our post-industrial economy fueled on creativity. Companies operating in creative industries need to harness and unleash playfulness in providing a stimulating environment to maintain a happy work force. Therefore, enjoyable and playful work conditions are not anymore a question of socialistic ideals but have become a business imperative of our current post-industrial and capitalistic economy. Correspondingly, The Factory workers have to employ themselves idealistically while satisfying the interests of capitalistic markets. Thus, Factory workers need to treat their work as if it would be an end in itself, although they know that their work is a means which is subjected to outside interests; insomuch, Factory workers are idealistic in an unideal world, and hence — live a metamodern life.

  1. William Morris, Socialism: The Ends and the Means, Norwich Daylight, 1886
  2. Andy Warhol, Interview with Gene Swenson, Art News, 1963
  3. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Judgment, 1790, §§10-17
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, 1785
  8. Salomon Maimon, Essay on Transcendental Philosophy, 1790
  9. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Judgment, 1790, §§46-50
  10. Terry Eagleton, The Ideology of the Aesthetic, Blackwell, 1990
  11. William Morris, Socialism: The Ends and the Means, Norwich Daylight, 1886
  12. Michelle Weinroth, William Morris’ Philosophy of Art, Canadian Aesthetics Journal, 2008
  13. William Morris, Useful Work versus Useless Toil, 1884
  14. William Morris, Art and Its Producers, 1888
  15. William Morris, Preface to The Nature of Gothic by John Ruskin, 1892
    (The Nature of Gothic is part of The Stones of Venice, Volume 2)
  16. John Ruskin The Stones of Venice, Volume 3, 1853, Chapter III
  17. Jacques Derrida, Without Alibi, Stanford University Press, 2002
  18. Jacques Derrida, I am at war with myself, Le Monde, Interview, 2004
  19. Mike King, Computers and modern art: digital art museum, Conference on Creativity & Cognition, 2002
  20. Jacques Derrida, Without Alibi, Stanford University Press, 2002
  21. Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker, Notes on metamodernism, Journal of Aesthetics and Culture, 2010
  22. Luke Turner, Metamodernist manifesto, 2011

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.