“The neat division between roles and real selves reduces society to a masquerade party. Yet not even plastic surgery can heal the psychic disfigurements. The social evil reaches into the living fibers; people not only assume roles, they are roles.”
“Interpretations by themselves do not determine meaning.”
“The problem of limits (of langauge, of technique) is precisely what interests Tarfuri and seperates him from Deleuze and Guattari, Foucault and Lyotard. For Tarfuri, as well as for Georg Simmel, the limit, the confine, the border (and, as such, form and history), is the place of contradiction – the place, that is, where the thing itself, and, at the same time, the cessation of the thing…are one and the same.”
Project of Crisis
Tarfuri & Contemporary Architecture
In Ukraine the U.S. wages a proxy war with Neo Nazis and US mercenaries. Clinton broke apart the former Federal Republic of Yugoslavia as a trial balloon for expanding NATO, and to see just how useful marketing could be in such matters, and of course to break up the nominally socialist state into small client states. Serbs became the new Nazis, even if it was an utter fabrication. The Milosevic trial was a Star Chamber sort of farce, and like so many held in The Hague, Milosevic *died*. Today, Joe Biden’s even dimmer son signs on to the board of Ukraine’s biggest gas producer, and the U.S. under the guidance of the grotesque Victoria Nuland (married to arch war mongering neo con author Robert Kagan) have thrown in with frothing Nazi thugs, and groomed “Yats” to step into power as Prime Minister…while the media ramps up the anti Putin rhetoric much as did for Milosevic at one time. There is an Orientalist trope at work in this, of course, that painted Putin as a slightly comic ex KGB agent, given to martial arts and bare chested horseback rides. It is interesting that body surfing and golf, or photo ops with a shotgun, are seen as mostly alright. Reagan of course loved to be photographed on horseback, and Bush Junior was given to adopting Stetsons and cowboy boots in middle age, and now paints fluffy West Highland Terriers, but all of that is embraced by media, none of it seen as comical.
Domestically there are stories of cops shooting kittens (threatening kittens no doubt), shooting pet dogs, and mostly shooting young black men, but often just the poor in general. And the U.S. military is having bases added throughout Africa, and eastern Europe, and the Pacific islands, and executing a drone terror on sheep farmers, the most vulnerable and poor people on earth. Why? Why bomb farmers? How can such things find public support? Why are these obvious contradictions ignored?
A part of the answer lies in the backdrop created by Hollywood and Madison Avenue. The sagas of Paul Greengrass, shows like Homeland or 24, and others, have enshrined a certain general narrative as the definitive version of fact. Except I honestly don’t think anyone believes this stuff, Greengrass’s Flight 93 is fantasy. Much like Lord of the Rings, or Harry Potter or Spiderman. Flight 93 is nothing more than that.
Now, I think a case could be made for the sublimated distrust of a good many in the U.S. by pointing to the popularity of the X-Files franchise, and its brethren. Most people WANT to believe in both. The strange secret CIA plans for dealing with Aliens, and the syrupy jingoism of Greenglass and Speilberg and Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa et al. The public needs both. When I watched the network hour presentation of the Snowden story, via Frontline, with Glenn Greenwald, one thing stood out; the endless white thin lipped gray haired, pink jowled faces. These are the men in power. White men. White men with soft hands and the resentful distrustful eyes of ferrets.
I mean no plane hit the Pentagon for fuck sake. Any ten year old can see that. There is no forensice evidence anywhere. But the same thing happened with the JFK assassination. People can both believe and need Oliver Stone and Jim Garrison, as much as they need Lee Harvey Oswald and the Warren Commission.
But this raises an important question that has to do with what I see as a degrading of curiosity. And curiosity has to do with learning and education. And curiosity is linked to authority. Or rather its surpression. Sven Birkerts, a few years back, wrote: “Knowledge, certainly in the humanities, is not a straightforward matter of access, of conquest via the ingestion of data…the past is as much about the disappearance of things through time as it is about the recovery of traces and the reconstruction of vistas.” Birketts was arguing that multi-media packages, platforms, and interactive databases had made the field of knowledge being studied a lateral and synchronic enterprise, one which allowed faster data consumption, but which eroded the sense of depth, eroded a quality of learning that came from struggle and the study of difficult forbidding material. Rather, this is the post modern learning of flat affectless shine and the illusion of transparancy. I say illusion because in fact, just like the architecture of domination and efficiency, these paradigms are efficient, but only for those in control. The instrumental logic that has given birth to political strategies such as those employed now by the NSA, is now one in which the machine, the hyper-space, far exceeds human capacity to integrate all this harvested information. Whether that info is a classics department data bank about Plutarch and Horace, or Ezra Pound or Rubens, or whether it is how much porn each citizen in the United States watched each day of the last ten years; the lateral data accumulation is impossible to fully grasp. The scale is not human. There is some kind of zero sum game involved, I suspect, and it certainly feels increasingly like a failed Borges story. The point is that study, driven by curiosity and not grades or institutional approval, often means *not* understanding a good deal of what one studies. For understanding is not a simple thing. There are layers and qualities of understanding. In science, like math, one must memorize and retain information. Everywhere else, this is far less true. Philosophy and art are about finding the parameters for interrogating rules.
Birkerts suggests we may, over milennia, as a species, develop an expanded short term memory while losing long term memory. The instinctive Darwinian solution seems already underway, and that is to think as managers. Again, we will tend to be speaking of those with control, for there remain tens of millions of people who never touch a computer in their entire lifetimes. Still, this is the new intellectual laissez-faire atrophy of body and soul one saw in a number of sci fi films and books from thirty years ago (Zardoz being one). But my feeling here is that ‘thing-ness’ of a word on a page, the thingness of a book itself, is totemic. It occupies space (and no, I dont think software memory is, finally, a place). And sure, there are comparable issues (as McLuhan noted) in transferring from the oral tradition to the written. On an anecdotal level, I remember conversations with strangers, or people I barely knew, on a daily and weekly basis, in which we asked each other questions. This is my memory of it, anyway. I don’t have those conversations today. They stopped fifteen to twenty years ago. When I teach, I am often stunned at how few questions students ask. I feel as the formulating of a question is, itself, a bygone skill. Is this the product of getting wrong answers all the time? (like, it was a plane hit the Pentagon). I think it is connected to the idea that conversation, even written communications, are always part of a strategy, a marketing campaign, even if said campaign were constructed by oneself. Silence, contemplation have come to feel uncomfortable, too, for something of an empty inner life is laid bare. Hence, fill it up with noise. Electronic noise. And there is the paranoia factor. People in the West are increasingly reluctant, over all, to rock the boat. Surveillance is everywhere, and the police response is now so unpredictable and often psychotic, that understandably people are going to get in the habit of shutting up. I would guess people actually have fewer conversations today than a hundred years ago. Some of this is technological, the inroads on communication made by texting and email, but in the West again, I would be willing to bet that people say fewer words out loud than they did in 1900.
Now I would also guess a large percentage of people reading this would disagree. And that is because so many people have been trained to see the world as a static whole, with minor cycles of variance. This is the psychological position I equate with white liberals (though its probably true of conservatives as well, to some degree anyway). Its mildly cynical. Which takes one back to the extraordinary tolerance for government lying, and government propaganda. The U.S. can place sanctions on Iraq that killed hundreds of thousands of children and declare this (via the ghoulish Maddie Albright) “worth it”, but get misty eyed at Boko Haram. Can tolerate the birth defects and spikes in cancer in Fallujah and Belgrade and still scold other nations for their human rights record. To not be deeply enraged, furious, to not be sick with anger at this wholesale hypocrisy is evidence of a society’s troubled soul. The propaganda from cop shows and military narratives is rather obvious, but I was pondering the kitsch medical franchises, almost all of which reduce the complexity of medical treatment to cartoon level bromides, albeit replete with a surplus of highly technical jargon. Shows in which long term pesticide poisoning, for example, rarely ever makes the storyline. The new Black Box, a show so uremittingly awful in every way that one does wonder, seriously, that anyone, even for a paycheck, could tolerate involvement. Freud was summarily dismissed by the lead character, a bi-polar head of neurosurgery (no, really), by saying “We no longer believe in Freud, welcome to the twenty first century”. What is distressing is that for a majority of Americans, this may well constitute the sum of their education in psychiatry. Its not disagreement with Freud (though thats an unfortunate sympton, and one found in the NYTimes and New Yorker pretty regularly) but rather the manner of this discussion; smug, junior college level psychology class. But then this is a show that resorts to zoom in camera, entering the eyeball to see exploding math symbols and equations, to indicate, um, *thinking*. Such zoom/CGI is usually reserved for ‘smart’ characters. Presumably common man has no such imagery IN his or her brain. The image of wires and conductors and circuits as symbols for the mind is now pretty common. Instrumental thinking dictates that for the world to make sense, consciousness must be just some form of software. There is a buried class element to the brain-as-machine trope; for expensive machines, a Porsche, or BMW, costs money and need upkeep, and the machines of the poor are discarded when they break.
Still, the single defining and overriding factor in place for almost all television today is *the legitimacy of the state*. The government as, however flawed, a great institution of service to its people. The secondary trope is the valorizing of the individual, the individual as a self generating figure for whom history, class, and ideology have little to no importance. There are some exceptions; The Killing had a policewoman shaped by her foster care upbringing and the indifference of child services. But in general, these are rare exceptions. Now this is all far less true of European series. The current popularity of Scandanavian crime shows (and French, even Belgian) has to do with what feels (to American audiences) like a much more ambigious moral landscape. Even British shows, while hewing closer to U.S. political conservatism, include a far greater awareness of class distinction and of working class hardship.
Now, one could find countless examples from a mere thirty or forty years ago, in Hollywood film, of a dissident point of view. Even if only through the nihilism of the protagonist, there was something far more allegorical and certainly far more distrustful of institutional authority. British director John Boorman made Point Blank in 1967, a film that in both form and narrative feels closer today to Tarkovsky than it does to current Hollywood film. It remains the purest vatic and oracular crime film ever made, probably. But the atmosphere, the landscape of films such as Cutter’s Way, Nightmoves, Charley Varrick, Ulzana’s Raid, Two Lane Blacktop, Cockfighter, Smile, Scorcerer, The Hustler, Fat City, Blue Collar, and Bullit, was one of moral corruption, existential angst, a world predicated upon disequalibrium and trauma. Nightmoves probably deserves a special mention here, directed by Arthur Penn, released in 1975, and written by the great Alan Sharp, it is on one level a standard private eye genre piece. But the mystery being solved isnt the one PI Harry Mosby is hired to solve; the real mystery is Harry himself. This is a post Watergate noir, a re-evaluating of what once made the moral crusade of Phillip Marlow or Sam Spade make sense. Harry is a man not perceptively acute enough to untangle the societal malaise around him. The moment Harry realizes that solving the mystery resolves nothing of his own problems, the film takes on something approaching tragic proportions. Scotsman Alan Sharp, who also wrote the very fine The Last Run, with George C. Scott, died just a year or two ago. His lack of appreciation is its own tragedy, for one cannot find better screenwriting than that of Alan Sharp.
The 70s marked the end for an American cinema of Aldrich, Hellman, Freidkin, Peckinpah, and Penn, for audiences were already going to see All the President’s Men and Godfather, not to mention Star Wars. I don’t think a single film listed above (and it’s a very partial list) made any money. The sensibility that saw societal ills, that questioned the status quo, and prioritized suffering as historically based, that saw human misery as unsolvable under the society of the Spectacle, was not what studios saw as profitable. And such films were not profitable.
I was reminded this week of Rudolph Stingel’s work. I am a big admirer of Stingel, even if I think some parts of the ourve are less impressive than others. In his best there is something deeply disquieting, almost vertigo inducing. For me I feel the launching of memories, or feelings associated with memories, memories that I can’t retrieve, and that feel almost discomferting. Experiencing Stingel makes one feel almost guilty, or as if someone caught you doing something you weren’t supposed to be doing. Both pleasure and pain reside in this work.
In Stingel there is no sentimentality; there is great lavish opulent color and tacticity, but it evokes memories. Maybe part of Stingel’s genius lies in his making us want to live in HIS memories. Or his dreams. The giant paintings, soiled and walked on, of the hyper realist Tyrolean Alps, remind me of those 1950s View Master 3d toys. For me the feeling is akin to what marionettes achieve. Roberta Smith described his orange wall at the Venice Biennale as an “etch a sketch cave painting”. Something of deep childhood dreams is operative here. But the work is not childish. It is the adult melancholy at lost childhood.
Stingel is also a romantic. For all this use of chance, of letting people scrawl on his electroplated gold walls, Stingel is still firmly an arch romantic and a romantic that I think finds something profound in that very idea. Stingel manages to eliminate the need for cheap effects, relying on his taste, and his intelligence. This allows me to segue to architecture again. Marco Biraghi wrote an excellent book on the work of Manfredo Tarfuri. Tarfuri was that rare Marxist who examined architecture as an expression of and creator of social conditions, who saw the buildings in the light not just of design, but of economy.
Walter Benjamin wrote; “Rather than asking ‘what is the attitude of a work of art to the relations of production of its time’? I would like to ask ‘what is its position in them’?” I think it is interesting to look at space again, as it is created in architecture, as unavoidably taking place in some way in relations of production. I believe that the erosion of curiosity in the general public today, certainly in the two youngest generations, those born into hyperbranded electronic space, is connected to the failure of inwardness that Berkerts laments, to the temporal displacement that is the Spectacle; the instrumental erasing of dreams, of that indeterminancy and overdeterminancy that accompanies all allegorical expression. In all arts, but perhaps in architecture most of all, there is a prophetic suggestion of coming dreams, and coming realities. Architecture and theatre are the two mediums most concerned with the past, while constantly outlining the future. Their temporal position is the most contradictory. Architecture is prophetic.
Tarfuri on Scarpa; “a game of formal skill played with fragments..an open organization of interrupted sentences.” But then adds; “..a fragment, properly unbderstood, always speaks of an irredeemably lost whole.” Tarfuri compares Scarpa’s melancholy to James Stirling, of whom he writes; “In Stirling’s case, fragments echo a distance, an impossibility of reactivating a discourse on the meaning of architecture…”.
The 2012 Pritsker Prize winner, Wang Shu of China, creates something I feel is close to Stingel’s work, and in another way to Scarpa. They are all very different in all the obvious ways, their work *looks* different, but they evoke our buried memories. The Ningbo History Museum is among the finest buildings of its kind built in the last one hundred years. But it is in his smaller works, where the use of recyled materials feels more present, that Wang Shu’s genius is most evident. The paradox of course is that this is an architecture of tradition, but not of the past. The interruptions in Wang Shu are treated as if there was really nothing to interrupt. His buildings feel proto, and they seem to hover in some way. They feel light without being insubstantial.
“…this work which I have called the “Decay of a Dome”. There is a cultural issue. The dome is based on a precise principle but I had it built high and you start to get disorder at the base when it reaches a certain height. This is interesting culturally because the Chinese have no problem accepting this disorder but it is not the same for the Western world.”
There is something profound in what Franco Rella wrote…“..an intermediate realm between the abstraction of the concept and the fullness of the myth, the analogy and the image.” This is the secret meaning of great architecture, that introduces the past to the present, in a dialogue of allegorical parts. The Maison Carree, one of the oldest Roman buildings still standing, is also one that contains within it several visual conversations from several distinctly different eras. When Tarfuri wrote of Las Vegas (in relation to Venturi); “…domination of all visible space…a network of superstructures.”
Tarfuri called it an..“intentionally childish phantasmagoria of light.” There is importance in understanding the subtlty and sensitivity of Tarfuri’s observations, for he, like Adorno, never forget a sense of mission, a faithfulness to his program, to the political implications hidden in the vocabularies of building. The landscape of Las Vegas is on the one hand chaotic, but beneath the chaos, is a rule of the Spectacle, that nothing can happen outside the rule of Capital. The economy of Las Vegas is, finally, expressed in the hysteria of this infantile architectural form.
“A city without qualities.”
Manfredo Tarfuri, on Las Vegas
Birkerts wrote; “I fear a world sanitized and superficial, in which people have forgotten the primal terms of existence – the terrors and agons — and in which the existential uknown is banished outside the pulsing circulation system of data…efficient and prosperous information managers living in the shallows of what it means to be human…”
There is a through line here, from TV cop shows to Obama terror drones, to what was lost in cinema, a cinema of only thirty and forty years ago, to Stingel and Wang Shu and Manfredo Tarfuri and to Las Vegas. And to the breaking down of curiosity, and its replacing by the efficient and superficial kistch management of Madison Avenue and the U.S. State department. When Peter Brook was recently in Los Angeles, his company played to half empty houses. The culture is now predicated almost entirely on kistch, on the constant reiterating of childishness. History is reduced to cliche, to banality, and that cliche soon becomes the principle of governance. Culture is today ruled by cliche.
“The city, having absorbed every architectural object into the informality at its core, covers itself up as a structure, and presents itself to the distracted perception as an asyntactic, alogical field of pure images to be consumed on a daily basis, thereby establishing a new realm of collective behavior.”