February 07, 2010

Common Sense

Malcolm Millais "Exploding the Myths of Modern Architecture": a book aimed at the general public that oscillates uncomfortably between an empathic socially-engaged engineer's response to architectural blight, and the sort of bluff prejudices-masquerading-as-common-sense more at home in the Daily Mail. He's not half as much fun as Tom Wolfe, and probably not nearly as effective, either.

He aims at all the usual suspects — Mies, Corb, the Bauhaus, Norman Foster, council flats, etc. — but also at Calatrava, Saarinen, the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank Building, the Pompidou Centre, Paul Goldberger, Frank Gehry, Bucky, Frank Lloyd Wright, and even poor old J√łern Utzon (with varying levels of venom or disdain). But there's really nothing that unites these architects or their architecture much beyond the fact that they lived sometime after 1920 or so, or that the buildings were built in the same period; he often seems to confuse or conflate "new", "modern", and "Modern", so while he's quite explicit that the enemy is the Modern Movement (a phrase he uses a lot — capitalised — in the book), it's not really Modernist architecture as such that's the target here, but the direct and indirect effects its ideology and founding concepts are supposed to have had on architects, architecture, and architectural criticism over the years. Which would cover a huge amount of contradictory ground, at least in my estimation: basically just about everything from pure Modernism, through movements and architecture merely influenced by the Modern Movement, to architecture (like the various Postmodernisms) quite explicitly reacting against the Moderns.

He's most concerned about the usability and (social, environmental) suitability of much architecture, and it's difficult not to agree with a lot of what he says, but… The Seagram Building actually looks pretty damn good from the street; he goes for the Opera House in all sorts of ways but misses the sheer banality of everything about it except the sails. The Calatrava bridge I know at first hand is so popular, so appropriate to its placing and intended use, such a pleasant piece of architecture, that it has kids running around touching it and playing on it, it has people (like me) visiting from all over the place. The Saarinens I know best — the old TWA terminal at JFK, and the main terminal at Dulles — are or were pleasnt (fun, even, in the case of the JFK terminal) pieces of work to look at and pass through (it was hardly Saarinen's fault that technology rendered them obsolete over the decades). I know at second hand how annoying the Lloyds building could be to work in (my uncle was a Lloyds underwriter), but it was a bracing sight from the street, one I visited many times just to take it all in. The Pompidou Centre's rightly one of the most visited buildings in Paris, a joy to behold; it may be a failure as an art palace or not, but it's a much-visited and much-enjoyed public building.

But the real crime of Modernist architecture wasn't the failure of Utzon to get a working opera house on Bennelong Point or the unsuitability for workers of various capital-A Architecture projects like the LLoyds building, but the destruction of community and the effect on domestic architecture of things like council flats and inner city projects. The most depressing bits of London in the 1980's were never the stupid Modernist office blocks or monuments, they were the tall grey instantly- and permanently-stained concrete council towers dishearteningly visible almost everywhere you looked. That's not so much a failure of Modern architecture as vast multiple failures of city planning, empathy, and imagination.

But what does he actually like? What's his vision of a good architecture? He plays this way too close to his chest, and you finish the book wondering if he has anything much in mind beyond Prince Charles's earnest quaintness or a sort of vague resurrection of earlier eras in new tech guise.

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January 29, 2010

Short Shameful Confession

Even now that Salinger's dead, I still can't bring myself to like or even admire "The Catcher In The Rye". I was forced to read it as part of a high school English course; back then, I remember thinking how specifically and annoyingly American it was, and just how alien to my own life as a teenager in Australia it all felt.

Nowadays, I think I'd add to this the uneasy feeling that the idea abroad here (in so many obituaries) that this specifically-American story represents something universal seems to be one of the most American aspects of the whole inflated TCITR phenomenon.

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December 14, 2009

It's Irrefutable!

"Althusser informs us that 'it is an irrefutable fact that the Family is the most powerful State Ideological Apparatus'" (from Tony Judt's 1994 New Republic review article, reprinted in his recent book "Reappraisals"). I sometimes tend to think it's more like state ideology is the most powerful family apparatus, in all the engendered senses of that inversion, but that's just a detail, right? After all, Althusser's talking irrefutable fact here, so he can't be wrong, right?

Despite his obvious humourless totalitarian tendencies and socially unperceptive work (and life, for that matter), Althusser was once taken Very Seriously Indeed by people I knew and respected in Sydney, and I'm sure somewhere in the stash of books I left with my brother when I moved to London there's a dog-eared copy of "For Marx" or "Reading Capital" (probably both). Reading Althusser as an engineering student who was also doing a serious history and philosophy of science (HPS) second major was a transformative experience, but not in the way it probably was for most non-techie readers. More than the deliberately obtuse and jargon-laden prose (seemingly designed to do the familiar trick of being allusive without actually pinning Althusser down to anything you could test or criticise without him (or his acolytes) protesting that you'd misread or misunderstood him), I think it was his misuse of the words "science" and "scientific" that did it for me. It's that classic sleight-of-hand shell game equivocation where a hollowed-out version of "science" is used as a stand-in for something quite different, but still lends it the aura of objectivity (the dead giveaway with Althusser is that nothing non-trivial in science is an irrefutable fact). And I was left with the stark difference between the "show the work" and "evoke the metaphor" poles of my then-academic reading life….

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December 01, 2009

Please Allow Me To Introduce Myself

Seamus Heany on his experience selecting students at Harvard: "What I wanted was evidence of their artistic doings [rather than] the plenitude of those essays of self-introduction that American students are so good at" (quoted in a recent LRB review of Dennis O'Driscoll's "Stepping Stones: Interviews With Seamus Heany"). Perfect.

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November 13, 2009

That Positivist Eschatology

Along with a handful of other people I spent an enjoyable few hours last weekend showing John Wilkins the Sights Of The City (and Berkeley). John's a real philosopher and historian of science, a field I really only dabbled in at university, and the various conversations over lunch or bagels or out in the streets ranged from mathematical models used in cladistics through species concepts and the storybook version(s) of science history taught to scientists, to what a positivist eschatology might look like (OK, that one was inspired by a previous comic non sequitur over a beer, but never mind), to Australian accents (his accent's noticeably more authentically Australian than mine; I think my accent's sui generis now, it doesn't belong to any country or region any more, which is a little unsettling). And he knew who the real Jimmy Little is, which was somewhat impressive for a philosopher (I was there as the Real Me, fortunately).

John's book Species: A History Of The Idea has just been published here by UC Press. One of John's arguments (at least as I understood it), which got aired on the weekend, is that the notion within biology that earlier scientists or philosophers — Linnaeus or Aristotle, for example — used essentialist conceptions of "species" is wrong, and that the notion that they did use such conceptions is itself a modern misconception, one that's been rather influential in modern biology and history and philosophy of science (HPS). A more nuanced look at what earlier scientists and philosophers actually meant when they used the term "species" suggests that few if any earlier such usages were essentialist.

That intrigues me, and might help explain a few things that have puzzled me about the history and sociology of modern biological; but I guess what I've always been most interested in with things like this (and what motivated me to do HPS at university) are the sociological and psychological reasons how and why such an idea might spread and take hold in intellectual circles (and anti-intellectual circles, for that matter) — and how such ideas die out or marginalised. History and sociology often only make sense to me when taken with a healthy dose of psychology (tempered with a great deal of skepticism); I can't help feeling this is one of those cases.

I've ordered his book; it turns up in the mail today or tomorrow; let's see how much of it I can misunderstand or misconstrue….

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October 10, 2009

Mystical Maths

In Moe's this morning I buy a copy of Alain Badiou's "Number and Numbers", and present it to the clerk, a guy who's sold books to me here for years.

Him: "Ah, Badiou! Man of the moment!"
Me: "But I bet you thought you'd never sell any copies of this book…".
Him: "It's Berkeley. Someone's going to buy a copy eventually…"
Me: "Yeah, that someone's me, I guess. I just love reading stuff like this to see what happens when philosophers try to take on math; it's nearly always some sort of semi-mystical train wreck."
Him: "Ha! A friend of mine used to read Badiou — and Deleuze and Derrida and all those guys — a lot, but he was always high, and he never stopped giggling and chuckling his way through it all. Made me kinda wonder what was in those books."
Me: "Yeah. Treating it as a species of entertainment is probably the best way to cope."

I'm hopeful of a little bit more than entertainment, though: there's evidence in a quick flip through the book that Badiou's not just interested in waving his hands ostentatiously in front of the usual mathematically-ignorant philosophy types. We shall see….

Later, in the supermarket, with some typically overheated Dylan song supplying a smooth soundtrack, the (huge) woman behind the deli counter has a (huge) black and white badge on her chest that says "God is good — all the time!". Somewhere out there, God's rolling in his grave.

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August 25, 2009

There's A Riot Going On

"What are we to make of a scientific materialism which formally accepts the findings of physics about matter, yet makes so little effort to link these findings with the class struggle, revolution, or whatever. Does not the abyss between proton and the proletariat conceal an unacknowledged metaphysical conception of man?" — Benedict Anderson in a footnote to Imagined Communities (p10 in my edition).

At first glance this is an absolute riot of category errors (and the context doesn't save it). At second glance it's hard to make enough sense of it to know whether they're really category errors or not. But never mind: this is a frustrating book, but one I keep reading. And reading it is like reading a map prepared by someone who navigates to a completely different (even hidden) set of stars (Marx, Gellner, et al); it's like unearthing a time capsule from a long-vanished era and having to struggle to remember some of the cultural, philosophical, and political references that Anderson must have assumed we'd all get or at least recognise as Important and Relevant (itself a word of its time…). In short, a book that seems colonised by the time and place of its writing.

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August 15, 2009

Kindling

Someone asked me the other day whether I'd ever get a Kindle. I suspect she thought I'd disdain the idea, that all the books I'm surrounded by in my studio speak to a love of the old technology. But much as I like books, I'm not sentimental about them: it's words I care about. I'd have a Kindle in a second if I thought I could really afford it.

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July 25, 2009

Bucky Balls

"If man is to continue as a successful pattern-complex function in universal evolution, it will be because the next decades will have witnessed the artist-scientist's spontaneous seizure of the prime design responsibility and his successful conversion of the total capability of tool-augmented man from killingry to advanced livingry — adequate for all humanity" (Buckminster Fuller quoted in "New Views on R. Buckminster Fuller", ed. Chu and Trujillo, Stanford, a book I recently bought at Moe's).

It's hardly original, but it's difficult not to feel that the biggest attraction Buckminster Fuller had for the younger counterculturalists of the 60's and 70's (and their epigones) was that — like any good prophet — his real meaning lay in the general incomprehensibility of his words. They could mean any damn thing you wanted them to mean, since by almost any conventional measure, they meant nothing at all. He spoke his own unique language, but made them feel that he spoke their language, at least in mental translation (his work certainly loses something in the original). The woolliness of the words just helped mask the genially-ruthless technocratic utopianism at the heart of it all (and running through the muddled and often far less genial veins of some of the countercultural movements who used or revered him). A sort of foggy glossolalia born in a collision of Futurism and the Burned-Over District, perhaps. Much of it's not even wrong, as they say.

I think another big part of the reason Fuller was so popular with the US 60's and 70's counterculture is that with things like the breathtakingly hubristic World Game he offered the promise of technology replacing politics. Politics is difficult, it's messy (and often a real come-down for nice middle class countercultural kids), but technology just tends to happen, and usually with a logic that would have been deeply congenial to a lot of white middle-class American kids of the time. Technology provides objective answers without that awful to-and-fro that politics demands; but when the answer to every question seems to be "geodesic dome" or "tensegrity" or "technologists know best", you can't help feeling that the questions might have been a little restricted or that there are some questions you just can't ask.

(And if there were ever a real example of the Canonical American Name it'd be "R. Buckminster Fuller". When I was a kid I just assumed the "Buckminster Fuller" part was a double-barreled last name (like maybe "Sebag-Montefiori"), and that our Bucky was so important no one ever used his first name).

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July 11, 2009

Moe Day

Moe's is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary today. It's sobering to think that I've been going there at least semi-regularly for nearly half that time, and first bought a book there in 1985. Moe's and the Milano (and Cody's before it went belly-up) have defined my Saturday mornings for twenty years now….

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June 27, 2009

All That Jazz

It's hot, at least by Bay Area summer standards (20C by 10am, but probably at least 40C just twenty minutes' drive over the Hills), and they've thrown open the roof and front walls of the Milano for the breeze. At the back of the upper level three very nerdy and earnest-looking students are gathered around a laptop and a textbook labeled "Modern Piano Jazz" (or something like that), absent-mindedly drinking coffee. At one point one of them looks up and loudly says to no one in particular "E9th!" as though he's had a revelation. I can't help hearing it in my mind as played up the neck on my old blue Strat.

Down the street at Moe's a Famous Author who I don't recognize but feel I should is bantering with the staff. They know who she is; me, I just trawl through the architecture section for low-price gems. There's a large cut-price hardback on Frank Gehry which I just have to buy — you can't spend much time in LA without running across his buildings, where they tend to seem more at home and less forced than in the wider world. As I leave the Famous Author glances at the book under my arm and asks whether there are any Gehrys in the Bay Area? I'm ashamed to say I don't actually know, which feels weird.

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March 08, 2009

Life On Mars

In Moe's I stumble upon Felix Guattari's "Chaosophy: Texts and Interviews 1972-1977" (Semiotext(e), ed. Lotringer, natch), a book I just have to buy after a quick skim, if only because the blurb describes "Anti-Oedipus" as one of the most important books of our time, and because in one of the chapters Guattari, when asked for a brief overview of something or other in an interview, goes on for several unstoppable pages (unintentional comedy is always the best comedy).

I've long had a soft spot in my intellectual heart for Guattari — his analysis of R.D. Laing's Kingsley Hall anti-psychiatry adventures (included in this collection) is characteristically perceptive and droll, and it's hard not to be sympathetic to an agenda that attempted to get psychology (as a practice, if not a science) out of the whole claustrophobic Oedipal thing and more engaged with broader social and institutional contexts (at least). But this collection was written at a time when it was possible to discuss psychiatry and psychology in great detail without once even mentioning neuroscience or neuropathology (except dismissively in passing), and to talk about something like schizophrenia entirely in social or institutional terms. Not that Guattari himself does this (at least not here), but this was a time when it was even possible to straight-facedly discuss "curing" schizophrenia using Freudian analysis; reading bits of the collection over the past few days has been a sort of mental Life On Mars for me.

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March 01, 2009

Power To The People

Reading Peniel Joseph's "Waiting 'Til The Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America" (Henry Holt, 2006), I'm often struck by just how central Oakland was to the Black Power movement in the late 1960's and 1970's, and vice versa: you keep stumbling over sentences like "[Eldridge] Cleaver [in exile in Algeria] lashed out at [Huey] Newton [in Oakland] during a televised international conference call [...] which had been originally designed as a show of unity between Oakland and Algeria.", and there's the detritus of those years all around Oakland, the attitudes, the power structures, the odd little murals and shopfronts in West Oakland or downtown, the ghosts of Huey and Eldridge in West Oakland and Berkeley.

Oakland as it is now really doesn't always make much sense without knowing about the Panthers and the whole Black Power struggle. And it's not just the lost, broken legacy of the Panthers' social activism (as Joseph points out, in Oakland as with so many other places, Black power (lower-case "p") became a reality just as the associated cities descended into dire financial and social straights, and became identified with failure), it's the attitudes (and attitudanalising) behind so much City Hall politicking and cultural pushes.

If there's ever a place that once took — and still takes — the idea of "unity between Oakland and Algeria" (where Algeria is being used in a broader sense than just shorthand for "the Black Panther camp currently exiled in Algeria") seriously, it's Oakland. Never mind that, inevitably, Algeria's a place most Oaklanders couldn't locate on a map of the world, and that the African touches here are so confused and, well, American.

But as for many Oaklanders (and as with California at large for many decades now), my Oakland is largely Hispanic and Asian nowadays, at least on a daily basis, and that's a fact that's caused increasing resentment in Oakland's black communities. Oakland's on the verge of no longer really being a Black majority town, and we're starting to see the same sort of politics of resentment playing out in local politics in particular nasty and coded ways.

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January 31, 2009

Science Taken For Wonders

Reading George Makari's "Revolution In Mind: The Creation of Psychoanalysis" (Harper, 2008), the question that keeps leaping up at every turn is: how did anyone take Freud seriously for so long? Put another way, what deep psychological need did Freudian psychoanalysis — a sort of astrology of the mind, short of real evidence, a mishmash of wishful thinking and received prejudices masquerading as the key to unmasking wishful thoughts and prejudices — what deep needs did it tap to be able to seduce several whole generations of philosophers, analysts, and patients? Now that's a problem best studied by psychology (or social psychiatry, perhaps). In this history, Freud himself comes across as mercurial, manipulative, spiteful; the group of Freudians around him as a typical cult, concerned mostly with a desperate struggle not to alienate the Leader and find themselves on the outside. Not a pretty picture, but not that untypical of any insurgent movement, in the field of science or elsewhere.

Freud's monumental reputation loomed large in the Easter Island of philosophy I inhabited in Sydney all those years ago (where he seemed to have been regarded as a founder of the science and philosophy of mind), but he and Freudianism were basically invisible in the science and history of science courses I took at the same time. And it's easy to see why: at every step of the history as told by Makari I want to leap up and ask "but where's the evidence?" or "how could you conceivably test that?" after some new assertion or complex model has been unveiled. Entire theories seem to have been spawned by (or grounded on) anecdotal evidence often gained from a single unverified clinical case (and then just as easily abandoned). The whole history comes across as a whirl of epicycle upon epicycle, self-validating, unfalsifiable, almost medieval, a sort of ungrounded Aristotelian hermeneutics of the mind, and as fundamentally changeable as Freud himself.

But Freudianism isn't necessarily Freudian any more, and while it's a lot of fun, it's unfair to visit the sins of the father on his children (especially since he abandoned so many of them). In the ferment of ideas about the mind during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, I have to admit that Freud seems to have had a good productive line of suggestive metaphors, established some useful vocabulary, and done a lot of good in deliberately letting quite a few essential cats out of the bag. But science? What Freud does seem to have bequeathed science isn't so much a science of the mind (we're still a long way from that), but a series of suggestive and largely-untested models for such a science; whether they'll be successful in the longer term isn't clear. But it makes for a very readable history….

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December 20, 2008

JUNK

Upstairs in the Milano a skinny young junky with stereotyped glassy eyes, greasy hair, and tats down both arms twitches in the corner badly out of place bent over a weeks-old newspaper. After a while he starts trying to hit up the nearest tables for money for a bagel, people look the other way or move downstairs, he slowly makes his way my way until he's close enough that I can see the letters "J U N K" tattooed across the knuckles of his left hand in gothic script. Just before he gets to me he stumbles and knocks someone's glass onto the floor, looks around startled, and flees past me downstairs and out onto the street. Upstairs we start relaxing again. Outside, the vendors on Telegraph keep on setting up the stalls for the holiday bash. In Moe's there's a row of art books on urban graffiti; one of the covers has a photo of a 1980's New York subway train, the graffiti along its length looking like the tats on the junky's arms, right down to the gothic script of one of the tags.

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December 10, 2008

Why, Indeed?

"If the development of print-as-commodity is the key to the generation of wholly new ideas of simultaneity, still, we are simply at the point where communities of the type 'horizontal-secular, transverse-time' become possible. Why, within that type, did the nation become so popular?" (from Benedict Anderson's "Imagined Communities").

It's a dirty job but someone's got to read it….

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September 01, 2008

It's A Dirty Job…

Mars is telling me that "Space Is The Place" (come on guys, you did that one last year) but on Telegraph it's usually more of a void, and in Moe's remainders section I buy one of those unintentionally cute authoritarian tracts on Architecture (with a capital "A"), "New Architecture 5: Truth, Radicality, and Beyond in Contemporary Architecture" (capitalisation normalised for readability), published before-it-all-went-wrong to celebrate the radical future Architecture and Architects were planning for us all back in 2000 (one of the buildings discussed is metaphorically on my front doorstep, so it cuts close to home sometimes). It's got a foreword by Baudrillard (of course!) with whole paragraphs of things like:
Does architecture peter out in its reality, in its references, in its procedures, in its functions, in its techniques? Or does it go beyond all that and lose itself in something else, which is perhaps its own end, or something that might permit it to go beyond its own end? Does architecture exist beyond truth, beyond its own truth, in a sort of radicality that challenges space — rather than controls it — that challenges society in its obedience of its conventions and insititutions, that challenges the very creation of architecture and the creative architect with his illusion of control.
Super! Pure poetry!

Allusive words, meaningless in their ability to mean almost anything; in fact the whole foreword is a sort of densely-packed tar pit of phrases that evaporate when exposed (and that I just know I'm going to return to over and over…). The engineer in me wants to say that these are the words of someone in love with the sound of words (and in love with the sound of themselves); the architect in me says that both the foreword and the tract itself show that it's infinitely easier to construct whole shining cities full of seductive phrases than it is to create a single building worth inhabiting — and seemingly impossible to write simply and thoughtfully about architecture's products from the potential user's point of view….

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May 28, 2008

On A Generalization Of The Second Theorem Of Bourbaki

In Moe's I pick up a small paperback, "The Artist And The Mathematician: The Story of Nicolas Bourbaki, the Genius Mathematician Who Never Existed" by Amir D. Aczel (Thunder's Mouth Press, NY). The world's crying out for a good Bourbaki biography, but this ain't it, unfortunately. It's a confused, repetitive, portentous, and rather plodding attempt to … well, what, exactly? And that's the problem, I think: it's trying to be a bunch of things, and doesn't really do any of them well.

It rather half-heartedly tries to play on the suspense of Bourbaki's identity, but the Bourbaki in-joke won't be any sort of mystery to maths insiders, or anyone who's read the jacket blurb, so that vein can't be mined for much. It's also a weird Grothendieck booster — but that falls flat, too, if only because most non-maths types won't understand why Grothendieck might deserve the adulation (especially since this will almost certainly be the first time they've ever heard of him), but more importantly because Aczel just lets that part of the story trail off, without actually explaining G's importance (he was important, to be sure, but he's the sort of guy — like Tesla, in a different field — who attracts True Believers). He seems to think it's self-evident; but without a good maths or maths history background, it's not clear at all.

In fact, the one thing it might have done to pull the whole thing together would have been to help explain the maths and the maths background, but the book seems to assume either (or both) that the reader can't or won't understand the maths, or that they already know it. It's a strange omission, for sure: a history of a mathematical identity (in several different usages of that term) that doesn't explain the maths at all.

The book's also a claim that Bourbaki was either a spark of Structuralism or sparked Structuralism, something that I hadn't heard claimed before and that struck me as potentially interesting. But as with so much of this book, that trail just sort of petered out after a lot of suggestive but inconclusive tidbits. I'd guess Bourbaki was very weakly both a spark of Structuralism and sparked Structuralism (there's a lot of vague metaphorical stuff in common if you don't spend too much time looking at the details), but it seems a real stretch to make him one of the great Structuralist prime movers.

And the book claims that Bourbaki almost single-handedly founded modern maths, which strikes me as ludicrous: Bourbaki was an interesting sidetrack or sideline at best, and, like the book's many claims, really went nowhere in a sea of words. I don't know any mathematicians who spend much time reading Bourbaki (I personally find him more unreadable than most maths writers, and given the field, that's really saying something), and few think of Bourbaki's rigid and scholastic attempts to reground mathematics as having led anywhere much at all.

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May 02, 2008

Learning From Los Angeles

Another Moe's remainder: "California Crazy & Beyond: Roadside Vernacular Architecture" (Jim Heimann, Chronicle Books 2001), a fun, good-natured, and sunny book on programmatic architecture that I devour in a day or two's part-time reading between work assignments. It concentrates mostly on 1920's and 1930's commercial buildings in the urban and suburban bits of the great Southland, the natural habitat for such architecture, but there's plenty to go around elsewhere, including some long-gone weirdos in Oakland, of all places (Berkeley, not surprisingly, didn't really go in for that sort of thing).

It's inevitably missing one of my fave programmatic buildings, the old dinosaur-shaped house that used to lurk in the desert scrub next to the Lucerne Valley Cutoff south of Barstow, a building that's now just littered about the Mojave in a thousand pieces of decayed wood and shot-up plaster in the middle of nowhere, but that used to squat just off the isolated dirt track there with a certain fun humour and rough style (I don't think it was ever completed, but I do remember it at one time being recognisably a dinosaur).

And that's part of what makes this book a pleasure: the reminder of the difference between fun and irony. Postmodernism so often appropriated earlier programmatic architecture for art by wrapping it in irony and sucking the fun out of it; but an essential element of much programmatic architecture is its sense of unforced humour and silliness. Knowing allusions to the originals might be cute and sometimes whimsical, but they're rarely much fun.

And where did they all go? "Who Killed Our Monstrosities?", as an unnamed writer quoted by Heimann puts it. It's hard not to sympathise with that sentiment, but the danger with things like this is nostalgia-driven preservation and even reconstruction; these things really live in their own present, make sense in their original time and place only. When removed, they become self-conscious signs of signs, signs of themselves in effect. But of course the real monstrosities are out there now, waiting for the future to back-validate them. We just don't know it, I guess.

(One of the other little pleasures for me with this book is seeing glimpses of the way Ventura Boulevard used to look like, this so-familiar untidy long strip of a short slice of my life, apparently once dotted with nicely weird and silly buildings in a semi-rural setting, now just the Ur-strip-mall…).

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April 11, 2008

Total Immersion

William Mitchell's "e-topia: 'Urban Life, Jim — But Not As We Know It'" (MIT, 1999, bought as the usual remainder at Moe's): a book as dated in its hip cultural references and words as the phrase "Mondo 2K" (a phrase he actually uses; I admit to once knowing someone briefly associated with all that) or the word "e-topia" (or the Matrix, which it tries to use as an exotifier with the same leaden academic effect it usually provokes in the non-academic), a book that breathlessly (and often perceptively) attempts to explore a wired utopia and its meanings (for architects and planners, mainly), while glossing a bunch of things like security (in any of its shaded meanings — apparatus vs. security from such an apparatus, for example), or crime, or terrorism, or even the huge energy budget of the revolution.

For example, Mitchell talks a fair bit about the future of immersive technologies, smart spaces, etc., but doesn't spend a lot of time discussing what it is you're most likely to be immersed in — advertising (think "Minority Report"; does anyone think totally immersive (and absolutely intrusive) smart advertising is not a part of our future?) — and what those smart spaces will be up to (clever ways to keep tabs on what you're doing and how to get you to do things you might otherwise not do). In something of a throw-away paragraph he envisages controlling all the smart appliances in your home with a simple palm-sized remote control, but misses the obvious flipside to this: the ability to remotely control the smart appliances in someone else's home, or even control a person in their smart immersive home with a similar little control. It's the human here who's most likely to be the smart appliance (does anyone really think that isn't part of our future?). Similarly, when Mitchell breathlessly describes his wired dwellings bringing choice and opportunity to the inhabitants, he honestly just doesn't seem to understand that being wired is to be tethered, something that can just as easily take away choice and opportunity from the masses. Something he might want to consider is that he's really describing the updating of Corb's "machine for living in" to "machine for selling in" or even a "machine for conforming in".

He barely seems to notice the flipside to even the basic network technologies he seems to see as liberating: by being immersed, you're also trivially trackable, absolutely awash in surveillance and coercion opportunities. Again, he simply doesn't discuss what it is you'd be so effectively immersed in, nor who makes and controls that immersive reality. He (weirdly) misses a couple of crucial dimensions to these network technologies: he has little or nothing on that creepy convergence of surveillance and marketing that's probably the biggest thing in Web 2.0, for example. Let's face it: from the implementers' point of view, the web's really just a way to sell browsers to product pushers; the government and other surveillance is just a happy by-product of the mechanism to do that.

It's not that the vision is chilling, it's that it's chilling that he can't see the downside, or just dismisses it with a wave of the hand. The question for an academic like Mitchell who's claiming to explore a wired (or, increasingly, wireless) future is whether he wants to be complicit in — or a booster for — the sort of immersive smart wired utopia he glosses. All I can say, based on this book alone, is that he's not exactly a reliable guide to the future — bring your own map and cross-check repeatedly.

(There's a less than subtle hint of where he's coming from academically in his use of the word "telematics", a word not usually encountered in the field itself, a word that's more usually found in the original French, or nestled translated in thickets of language more appropriate to a virtual reality and rhizomes (another such word he uses) than in the world of networks or systems engineering I've inhabited for a long while now).

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February 23, 2008

Research Shows…

Spurred on by a recent posting on That Convoluted Marketing Romance I finally got around to reading David Ogilvy's "Ogilvy On Advertising" the other day (yes, it's another of those "I can't believe I haven't actually read this book" books).

Like its author, the book unwittingly evokes a disappearing Jet Age (of both Western culture and advertising in particular) with nearly every word or picture, and does so in a jaunty patrician tone that won't suit everyone. It's a book that famously starts:
"I do not regard advertising as entertainment or an art form, but as a medium of information. When I write an advertisement, I don't want you to tell me that you find it 'creative'. I want you to find it so interesting that you buy the product. When Aeschines spoke, they said, 'How well he speaks.' But when Demosthenes spoke, they said, 'Let us march against Philip.'"
Begin as you would go on, I guess — this is not a book that's going to spend much time on self-reflection or deconstructing the ad industry, but I think we already knew that.

Just look at that paragraph — a classic Ogilvy sleight of hand: he uses the word "information" when he means "rhetoric" or "disinformation", just as he uses "interesting" when he means "persuasive". Advertising isn't about product information in any way we lay people might recognise; it's primarily about consumer information; and the medium involved is increasingly mostly about getting information from you or about you as the target of a particular ad rather than getting information to you about specific products (which is why consumer tracking technologies like Web 2.0 are such a godsend for advertisers). A good advertising man like Ogilvy will not release pure unedited and unmediated information about the product to the potential consumer, especially if that product is more of a lifestyle or image (it would be a typical Ogilvyism to deliberately conflate "image" and "information"). And since Ogilvy's product in this book is advertising itself (and himself, of course — pity the title "Advertisements For Myself" was already taken…), what else would you expect? He's trying to sell advertising as a business, a concept, and if that means "informing" with Doublespeak, well, you've been warned, you know the territory. As Ms Natividad puts it, Ogilvy's got "a PhD in elegant bullshit, braced by decidedly supple morals." In other words, he'd like us to think that he's unashamedly and unapologetically an advertising man (in the Jet Age sense), but he can't publicly articulate what that means without resorting to, well, bullshit.

He adopts what I suspect is supposed to feel like a no-nonsense conversational tone in a lot of the writing, but that's as much a front as the rest of it. Large parts of the book also seem to be written in a rather self-satisfied and slightly arch way that can't quite hide the insecurity and combative self-pity that seems behind some of it (what is it with ad execs and design creatives wanting to be Bad Boys up against all those Nasty Left Wing Academics or politicians and do-gooders who doubtless held them back so long from greater glories, anyway?).

What I do like about the book, though, are the bits on the thinking behind and / or effects of a lot of (sometimes dated) "timeless" ads (many, but not all, of them his), and the sound (or, at least, sound-sounding) and reasonable advice on everything from getting a job to what makes a successful ad (and what "successful" might actually mean in this context — he's big on "research", without always being able to either define it or to do more than wave his hands distractedly with another flourish of his "research shows…" mantra). But it's difficult to take even this discussion at face value: the man's constructing a story to go along with the image, after all, and since the image is always infinitely more important than unmediated information, well, the narrative might have to bridge a few factual swamps or detour smoothly around inconvenient truths here and there, no? And a lot of the example ads are famous for being, well, famous, but did they sell the associated product well? "Research shows" that research on such things is typically either inconclusive or anecdotal, I'd guess, especially reading between the deliberately deflective lines in this book.

But as I said earlier, the book's really an artefact of, and a bible or manual for, the fast-disappearing Jet Age of advertising (and Western culture in general), and taken on its own terms, it's actually a lot of fun to read and contains enough wisdom and quotable quotes to make it a classic.

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February 04, 2008

Like I Care

"Confronted with a collection like [the Refco Collection of Contemporary Photography], the question of what makes one photograph or one painting 'art' and another not 'art' is an honest one. The simplest answer is that pictures become art when we love them for themselves. The more modern answer would be that pictures become art when we love them for themselves, and they seem on the verge of obsolescence, when we are fearful for their survival." — David Hickey, ruminating on Art and All That in an introduction to "Subjective Realities: Works from the Refco Collection of Contemporary Photography" (2003, Refco Group; bought as a remainder at Moe's the other day).

What an odd answer (especially for something written in 2003): it seems to fetishise the isolated art object (the photograph) itself, and seems to want to put the art in individual and sentimentalised relationships to it. I'm never too sure how to respond when someone talks about art that way, but for me the real question when confronted with a collection like this isn't about art, it's "why should I care (about the image or art)?" That's always a much stronger question, a much more interesting quest in the long run.

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January 14, 2008

Buy Design

The late, great, Tibor Kalman (1989, quoted in number 47 of Michael Bierut's Seventy-nine Short Essays on Design) on the role of Design and designers: "We're not here to help clients eradicate everything of visual interest from the face of the earth. We're here to make them think about what's dangerous and unpredictable. We're here to inject art into commerce. We're here to be bad."

That sounds more like a manifesto for selling Design to designers, for selling self-importance to the insecure, than a serious attempt to answer the Big Question. Face it Tibor, Design's for selling, for deflection, for distraction. Design is aesthetics and visual rhetoric in the service of sales — selling a product, an ideology, a state of mind, an idea, an individual's weltschmerz, a corporate image…. If a design's not tugging you by the cuffs and whispering (or screaming) "Buy! Buy! Buy!" in your ear, it's just not doing its job (or it's Art).

(Bierut's book's a lot of fun, and he gently rips into the rather fatuous Adbusters manifesto of some years back, but he's pleasingly elliptical about his own answer to the question, "What is design for?". He seems most engaged when discussing what we might call Heroic Design, i.e. design selling the idea of Design (to clients or to other designers); but that may be a little unfair).

(And Kalman's mini rant's actually an ironic breath of fresh air compared to Cheryl Towler Weese's recent muddled, earnest, and unintentionally funny Design Observer piece "Is Apple Soft On Crime?", a piece that's likely to pass into history as a classic of its type. Danger and unpredictability are all very well until it's by design, right?!).

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December 23, 2007

Burn Baby Burn

"Architecture Must Burn", Aaron Betsky and Erik Adigard (Thames and Hudson, 2000, recently picked up in Moe's as a remainder): I'm a sucker for this sort of unintentionally earnest manifesto, teetering back and forth between the twee and the seriously ludicrous. Like nearly all manifestos, it's reactionary and utopian; and like all utopias, totalitarian; in this case in a creepy "we really care" sort of way. A sort of insistent dog barking in the intellectual night somewhere far off that you can't quite dismiss, despite the lack of overt meaning. There's some breathtaking writing here, spoiled by an almost contantly breathless tone and general incoherence; the book itself's a design disaster, in that very self-conscious and rather forced late-1990's way (and in a way that very deliberately becomes an issue in itself).

And I think I'll scream if I see such hip imports as "strange attractors" in a non-science context again; it's a sort of token exoticism or cargo cult that lets the writer indulge in a shell game of equivocation, where the smokescreen of vagueness lets you get away with giving the impression of profundity and depth without ever pinning things down, even generally. If you're vague enough, you can get away with convincing almost anyone that you've said something both profound and agreeable.

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November 10, 2007

Back To Normal

It's a home game day at Berkeley (a lopsided USC Trojans vs. The Bears game up in the stadium, apparently), and in the Milano some sort of American Modernist classical piece on the radio competes with the Asian drums out on Sproul and the marching band warming up nearby. The effect's like Ives coliding with a gamelan, something Our Charles would approve of, for sure.

Outside, in the drizzle on Telegraph, a young homeless guy asks me for change for coffee. He looks like he'll actually get coffee with it, so I give him four quarters and terse smalltalk, and a minute later he's disappeared into the Mediteranneum. Me, I disappear into Moe's and end up with Luca Frei's "The so-called utopia of the centre beaubourg — An interpretation", a book full of the sort of throwaway apercus like "Sleeping: is that also part of culture?" and "Of all the insults and the accusations that have been thrown at us, that of parasitism fills me with joy [...]" that I suspect will either quickly get very tiresome or will suck me right in (there's a thin line between attitude and ambition)

Back on Telegraph, Mars is now saying "Fabulous clothes for naked people". With Mars it's not so much an ad as a proclamation, or even a command. I wish I could comply. On the other side of the street the coffee guy's sitting on an abandoned doorstep drinking coffee; he sees me and waves. On my side a tall skinny guy in a yellow hoodie under an immaculately-tailored and buttoned-down dark blue Cal sports blazer topping ironed jeans and a pair of docs sweeps by to great effect. I don't have the guts to take his photo.

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October 23, 2007

The Anti-Telegraph (Lismore)




In the Co-op on the plaza at Southern Cross University I pick up a remaindered Les Murray biog; I just have to find out where that huge well of self-pity comes from. This anti-Telegraph Avenue seems to be a good place to start, surrounded by a weird mix of homeopathy schools and redneck trucks, strutting Aussie battlers, beautiful old houses, verandahs, lush greens and bright colours, backroads restaurants, cattle, heat, humidity, rainforest, fibro shacks ….

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October 11, 2007

Ornamentalism

In his "Design and Crime", Hal Foster takes Adolf Loos's famous "the evolution of culture is synonymous with the removal of ornament from utilitarian objects" (and the associated "ornament and crime" tirade about civilization and purity) seriously, as ideological baggage. But if you're going to take a statement like that seriously and at face value (rather than as the drily amusing polemical provocation I tend to think it is), you have to take it seriously as a psychological phenomenon rather than politically or ideologically. You're not going to get too far into why such slogans seduce without delving deeply into the subconsciouses of the sort of people for whom Purity and Authenticity appeal so much. It's about Belief, not about ideology. In such people, Belief prefigures ideology (but again, given Loos's actual output, you can't help feeling he's just stirring; like Schoenberg, he protests about protesting just a little too much).

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October 06, 2007

All Warm And Fuzzy

In the Milano they're playing a light, unfamiliar, flowing Spanish-language cover of the old Pretenders song "Back On The Chain Gang" with a very different set of lyrics in the chorus, I can't get it out of my head all day, later I discover it's one of Selena's, something I hadn't quite expected or known. Down Telegraph, Mars is now telling me I make their sweaters feel all fuzzy, which seems a little unlikely, but they know best. You can't argue with an oracle.

At Moe's I pick up two remaindered coffee table books on late modern (but not Modern) architecture: I seem to look to architecture (rather than photography or painting, etc.) for visual inspiration nowadays. And not just the architecture in books, but those concrete images talking to each other across the streets of San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley, Emeryville, and Los Angeles… (there's not a lot of capital "A" Architecture in the Bay Area, so you have to go looking for architecture in the small, in the unexpected detailing above a shopfront in Oakland's uptown district, or the way the Transamerica Pyramid is so often visible at street level only by reflection, or in the overall effect of a streetful of shabby Victorian terraces). There's more to chew on there than in most of those capital "A" art books I can't help also browsing….

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September 27, 2007

Tagline Tyranny

"Agencies waste countless hours concocting slogans of incredible fatuity. […] Notice that all these bromides are interchangeable — any company could use any of them." David Ogilvy, quoted in Michael Bierut's "Seventy-nine Short Essays on Design" (No. 36).

But isn't that the point? It's not an individual tagline that's significant, it's having any tagline at all that's significant. Taglines are anonymous floating signifiers; in most cases the tagline's not about a specifc product or company, and definitely not about product pragmatics or usage: taglines are about distraction and deflection, they're about identification with lifestyles that value taglines, they're about a 1984-esque kenosis of meaning. Not so much the society of the spectacle as the tribes of the taglines.

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August 31, 2007

Fly-By-Light

"Giselle watches the tiltrotor commuter shuttles carrying the air-networkers, while in the distance airships circle Airlander with London sightseers." (picture caption to "A Fly-By-Light Architecture", from Audacity.org's "Sustaining Architecture in the Anti-Machine Age", again)

This is like shooting fish in a barrel, but here goes... the Fly-By-Light group propose a ginormous 400 metre high Futurist transport hub ("Airlander") looming irridescently over Charing Cross, complete with a swarm of V-22 Osprey tiltrotors flying low along the river to and from commuter hubs. But has our Giselle actually heard an Osprey, not perhaps the quietest of aircraft on earth? Or wondered about their per-passenger-mile energy budgets?

I'd accuse the authors of taking the piss if I didn't feel I was being pissed on in turn….

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August 02, 2007

Transgressions

How does he do it? Hal Foster, in the middle of an otherwise clearly-written preface (to his "Design and Crime"): "I think we need to recapture some sense of the political situatedness of artistic autonomy and its transgression, some sense of the historical dialectic of critical disciplinarity and its contestation [...]". I'm tempted to say I get it! I get it! but the joke's still on me.

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July 25, 2007

Spectacular!

"Modern mass production destroys the sense of art, and the sense of work, in labor: 'We have products; we no longer have works.'" (Curtius, quoted in The Arcades Project (d12a5, p768 in my version)).

We have images; we no longer have works of art. Or perhaps it's just that we have Artists; we no longer have art.

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June 23, 2007

Sustenance (Vision On The Small Scale)

Tucked away between the (sometimes admirable, and even occasionally lucid) social jargoneering pieces in Audacity.org's glossy book "Sustaining Architecture in the Anti-Machine Age" there's a small piece by Foster and Partners, "Challenging Assumptions About Cities Of The Future", describing a mooted Millenium Tower for Tokyo (yes, it — like so much of this sort of thing — was written Before It All Went Wrong). 170 storeys high, 2km offshore, a major piece of engineering, Architecture on a Corbusian scale. I can't tell if it's there as an illustration of sustainable architecture or as an anti-illustration — it just sits there, much like the tower itself would in Tokyo Bay, sui generis and a little incomprehensible (or all too comprehensible, maybe).

In all the diagrams and words there's not a single sentence — no visible thought at all — to what it might actually be like to live or work in something like this. Not Foster's concern, I guess, which isn't as surprising as it not being the concern of a book about architecture and sustainability: there's more to sustainability than simple resource in / out equations. There's also the question about whether life's worth sustaining inside such a tower, of how one would sustain one's mental, social, cultural, and physical life in such a machine for living, of how it might help sustain the surrounding environment, society, and culture.

Architects have an implicit contract with the inhabitants of their mooted buildings and with the people who inhabit the surrounding area. Good architectural proposals should grapple with what it's like to live or work in the building being proposed, what it's like to walk around it, what it's like to approach it from different angles, what sort of narratives the architect has in mind for daily life in the building, what it might be like to stand on the 150th floor and look out (or not), what it might be to spend an entire life in such a building. A good architect ought to be able to articulate what end users — inhabitants, customers, visitors, bystanders, etc. — would dislike as well as like about the building and the uses they're forced or chose to make of the building.

Vision on the small scale, in other words, the hardest part to get right (there are none so blind as those with Vision).

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May 05, 2007

Longer Days

Mars tells me now that Longer Days Mean Shorter Skirts, but all I see is bondage gear in their windows and the usual derros, ancient hippies, and ageing self-important boomers strewn along the begarbaged blocks of Telegraph. In Moe's I buy a cheap remaindered paperback of Adorno's collected essays on music, a rich collection of easy targets. Adorno's writings on music are one of those sprawling guilty pleasures for me: he's so certain of the details (and so often right about the details) that he seems to completely miss the bigger picture. He's a Man On A(n Aesthetic) Mission, and he never lets us forget it — and like reading any literate True Believer, reading him is like entering another universe, something as entertainingly off-kilter in its way as Ben Marcus (an author Our Theodor would Not Approve Of, I'm sure).

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April 08, 2007

Scenic Cookery

Sian Bonnell's "everyday dada", a little hardback with the sort of understated, small-scale and wordlessly self-explanatory art in it that lurks unassuming in Moe's amongst all the large-scale earnestry and bloated self-regard… I have to buy it.

(For those of you who knew me in Sydney, think "nuisance art", but done with more planning, more malice-aforethought, more wit, and much better execution).

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March 25, 2007

Istanbul (Not Constantinople)

"Walter Benjamin once wrote that in observing a city, outsiders concentrate mostly on the exotic and picturesque, while the natives always see the place through layers of memory" — Amos Elon reviewing Orhan Pamuk's "Istanbul: Memories and the City" in a recent NYRB.

But it's precisely because of people like Benjamin (and Pamuk, for that matter), that even outsiders see cities like Paris (or Istanbul) through layers of memory — other people's memories, for sure, but what's most striking (for me, at least) about visiting a city like Paris or New York or London or LA is the overwhelming sense of recognition of the ordinary rather than strange exotica. You can't read those cities like unknown books, you read them through layers of half-remembered (or vividly-remembered) memories of other texts and memories, you re-read them (this time in the original). What perhaps feels exotic is the source of the sense of remembrance in each place.

(When I moved to London I felt like I was inhabiting books; coming to California was about inhabiting TV and film).

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March 03, 2007

Épater le Bourgeois

"This [notoriety] suited Ibsen: scandalising the bourgeoisie was the best way of becoming a certified Modern." — Martin Puchner reviewing Toril Moi's "Henrik Ibsen and the Birth of Modernism" in a recent LRB. Well yes — bourgeois scandalising the bourgeoisie would seem to be the very definition of a model Modern movement. Postmodernism? A project concerned mostly with celebrating the bourgeoisie with faint praise.

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