The posts on this blog were mostly considered emails written to people interested in a particular approach to addressing the problems facing humanity and our relationship to the planet. If you are interested in what you read - please leave a comment...

January 19, 2012

Letter to Greg Keeffe

Hadn't seen your urbanism blog before. Glad I have now.

There is a terrible thing going on. Life is being squashed, sucked, drained from everything by an essentially inhuman network that is corporatism - machine scale institutions, processes, understandings (this applies equally to 'right' and 'left' - all seem in thrall to / in awe of the insensate power of scale).

Those of us who hate this, who resist this, are nevertheless part of it: as Joe S said - "You have to deal with it/ It is the currency" - 'Hate and War'

But our opposition is fatally fragmented by the reverberations of modernism. Modernism is Janus faced. On the one hand, it celebrates the individual, encourages us to look at tradition with a sceptical and suspicious eye - as the trappings of an outdated feudal system - in this sense it encourages freedom, supports life.

On the other hand, modernism has been the handmaiden and aggressive tool of corporatism as it assiduously dismantles all human solidarity and sense of joint endeavour, of shared values, shared culture - in much the same way that a parasitic wasp turns the inside of its victim into a protein pulp, so that it can feed on an undifferentiated mush - modernism plays the part of the agent that is injected into the victim.

So we have a situation where the only model for anger, for resistance, for scepticism, for proposing new visions, is modernism (however debased the term has become - and I'm not talking about architectural modernism, that isn't even a bad joke any more - I mean the whole cultural mode). And it is useless - worse than useless.

I'm including you as a modernist, in the light of your blog.

But modernism has been recuperated; has been recuperated almost from the moment of its triumph - the period immediately after WWII - the period when the CIA began funding cultural publications, and the USA imported modernists wholesale from the wreckage of europe, rendering them pawns by giving them tenure professorships.

All this angry modern ranting about the state of things, about radical new things, is grist to corporatism's mill - individualism and unique visions can never challenge the grip of mass statistically based culture - they can always be re-assimilated and sold back to us as pictures, as lifestyles.

Only strong communities can resist, and communities can only be real when they consist of groups of people not bigger than a few hundred. This is not fuddy-duddy, or traditionalist, or romantic, or right wing, or left wing - this is hard science (modernism has difficulties with science; on the one hand, it loves the idea of the radicalism of science - that something can just be true, whatever society would prefer; on the other hand, it finds it desperately uncomfortable when science demolishes its own romantic notions of the heroic individual, of free will, of the liberation of humans from the legacy of our evolution).

AND MODERNISM IS ANTI COMMUNITY. It must be - that was its purpose - it was a necessary development whose raison d'etre was to break the remains of feudal society that stifled humanity at the end of the C19th.

WE MUST MOVE BEYOND MODERNISM - we must re-invent community on the basis of what humans actually are - minimally evolved hunter gatherers.

I am afraid that blather about  'software' and a 'post-Superstudio' world  (seductive as it might be to a middle class intellectual) belong to science fiction, and not to what is around us, to where we are, to what we can become.

This is not an attack - it is intended as a robust conversational gambit.

I like your blog. It is powerful and says great things in short sharp bursts. It makes me  think. But at the same time, it is nearly useless.

As Raoul Vaneigem said;

"Everything has been said, yet few have taken notice of it. Since all our knowledge is essentially banal, it can only be of value to minds that are not."

Without being vain, I consider myself non-banal. This is rare. I consider you non-banal also. We are getting old - I will be 50 this year. We see just how extreme the situation is that humanity has got itself into. We are angry; we have children, we don't want them to live in shit.

We are desperate that others should become non-banal.

Here's the thing. We are weird. For whatever reason (and I credit punk rock for my own enlightenment), we were dissatisfied, smart, exposed at a young age to radical perspectives in the middle of a recession which meant no-one was offering us easy lives that we could stomach.

But it takes more than angry weirdos to change the world. It takes normal, boring, decent, sensible people - some reasonably large minority - to change the world. And these people aren't angry, aren't desperate, aren't intellectuals.

What they need is tools - tools that make sense to them, tools that they can use, tools that go toward building small parts of the world that are resistant to corporatism - places where a human, rather than a non-human, reality holds sway.

Uncomfortably for you, I believe that these places will look and feel rather dull, rather old-fashioned, rather homely, desperately short of wacky imagery, or cool ideas - what they look like will not represent their real radicalism, which will reside in how people relate to each other. The modernist notion of the absolute requirement for visible radicalism as a solution for dissatisfaction is bunk - exciting hokum, and nothing else. It is an intellectual solution to a problem that has little or nothing to do with intellectualism, and everything to do with practical reality (I know, I said a dirty word).

Somewhere toward the beginning of '
Architecture and Utopia. Design and Capitalist Development', Manfredo Tafuri has a superb line that powerfully and convincingly asserts that all avant-gardism is a means of warding off bourgeois anguish. I don't have the book here, so I can't give you the direct quote - it's fantastic.

I am with you in finding almost all of the output of the 'new-urbanists' and their fellow travelers turgid and flabby. I agree that they are massively compromised in their association with reactionary 'traditionalists'. I agree that their reliance in this country on the monarchy is disturbing and bizarre. Nevertheless, this group contains the only glimmerings of work that gropes towards evidence based working, relying on humans as the measure of urbanism. It is distressing to me to have to associate myself with them in many, many ways (and in fact, I hardly do associate in practice). Nevertheless, I cannot see anyone else (excepting completely my teacher, Chris. Alexander) who seems even interested in humans as they really are.

And if the alternative is Rem Koolhaas, then the choice gets even simpler.

If there is to be any effective resistance, it will be nurtured in places that are built around humans, around their physical, emotional, social and psychological realities and needs, places which are inimically resistant to mass culture, mass marketing, mobocracy; places in which community is a natural implication of existence.

To quote Big Flame: "Turn your anger into energy! MAKE yourself think!" Note, they didn't say to turn your anger into radicalism.

I have, of course, set you up as something of an aunt sally in all this. I have undoubtedly ascribed to you positions and opinions which you don't have, and radically over-simplified even those - please accept my apologies and understand my motives. If you are minded to respond at all, I would be overjoyed.

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