Everybody’s a Critic

Over at Urban Omnibus, Diana Lind reports on Critical Futures #3, an event at Storefront that I was unfortunately unable to attend. If I had attended, I probably would have said something on the nature of the following. 

There's a constant and sustained rhetoric of crisis among architecture critics now. Roughly summed up, there seems to be a sense that something has gone wrong in criticism—some people think that critics are too reactionary and mean spirited, others seem to think that they are in bed with architects—that blogs are a threat because of their peculiar obsessions (although what these may be never seems to be clearly stated), and that all this must be fixed.

I'll play puzzled for a minute. When was this golden age of criticism. Was it in the 1970s when architecture critics typed their columns on typewriters in Philip Johnson's office? The days of Montgomery Schuyler? When was it? And how are these mysterious bloggers to blame? Bldgblog seems to be invoked from time to time but to blame Geoff Manaugh is a category error. Geoff writes about architecture, but he has his own take on it which has less to do with contemporary criticism and more to do with creating a particular vision of architecture that is studiously idiosyncratic and extends much beyond the boundaries of the discipline. If every now and again he might get excited about a building, I hardly see him as a critic in the traditional sense, any more than I see Things Magazine as a critic. In contrast, we have blogs like Enrique Ramirez's Aggregat 4 5 6, Owen Hatherley's Sit Down, Man You're a Bloody Tragedy, Charles Holland's Fantastic Journal, Sam Jacob's Strange Harvest, Stephen Becker and Rob Holmes's Mammoth and Mimi Zeiger's Loud Paper. These are the blogs I read regularly (I'm sure I've omitted a few and I apologize). Indeed, these are the writers on architecture that I read regularly. All have particular, distinctive voices. Although two (Owen and Mimi) also write criticism, I regard them more as writers who occasionally have to keep themselves fed by writing about buildings. If there's a long list of blogs that I should be reading and I'm not, please enlighten me. There's archinect, but that's less a blog these days and more a news source coupled with a forum.

What interests me about all of the above blogs is that they situate architecture within a broader context. Disciplinarity is dying at a rapid clip. I suspect the lament is partly a reaction to the end of disciplinarity. We are losing our ability to talk about architecture on its own terms. On its own, that's not necessarily a bad thing. Many of my readers—and many of the critics out there today—are too young to remember the bad old days of the early 1990s when architects mumbled ill-informed nonsense about Derrida* and showed random squiggles during their lectures that were supposed to be about the emptiness of nothing. Those were bad days, supposedly the days of disciplinarity. We don't want to go back there.

But speaking of the 90s, I think that what we are experiencing now is a crisis akin to that which critical theory went through in that decade. These conferences and articles (typically blog posts, thus reminding me of Johannes Trithemius's De Laude Scriptorum) are attempts to work through, or mourn the death of traditional criticism. We no longer live in an era in which people want to be told what to think. Those days are over and the old Bourdouvean critique no longer works so easily. Critics are something like travel critics today, largely serving to get buildings on the front page of papers, validating the next work of must-see starchitecture. It'd be great if they could have an impact on the generally shoddy quality of work that passes for advanced design today, but it's unlikely On the whole, however, the practice of describing a buliding in print is obsolete. Under network culture, everybody's a critic. 

People just aren't interested in traditional criticism anymore. That's something that critics will need to get used to, just as historians of architecture have had to get used to the idea that there are precious few positions in that profession left anymore (starting a Ph.D.? do you have a particular angle or hook? perhaps a large trust fund?). Coupled with the destruction of ad-based revenue for newspapers and magazines that has led to mass butchery of editorial staffs and you have the reason for the crisis of criticism. Just don't blame the bloggers. They're not playing the same game.  

*Note well. I am a big fan of Derrida.

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Why Did Actor-Network Theory Run out of Steam?

Lately, I’ve been consumed by analyzing the biggest story of the decade:  financialization and the ensuing economic crisis which now seems likely to be with us for a decade. In thinking about the #domusweb project, I’ve been struck by how the critical tools that have been en vogue during the last decade have proved bankrupt in the face of the economic crisis.

What strikes me most about this is how clear the crisis was to anyone who reads materialist historians. Take Giovanni Arrighi’s brilliant The Long Twentieth Century. The description he gives of financialization and systemic cycles of capital accumulation in the Introduction should be enough for anyone to make reasonable sense of what happened in the last decade. What’s more remarkable is that it was written not this year but in 1994.  

Or take Fernand Braudel, the other great inspiration for Arrighi beyond Marx. Arrighi points out that in observing the development of the capitalist cycle in eighteenth century Holland in the third volume of Civilization and Capitalism, Braudel writes "At all events, every capitalist development of this order seems, by reading the stage of financial expansion, to have in some sense announced its maturity: it was a sign of autumn." (Braudel, Civilization & Capitalism, volume 3, 246). 

In contrast to Alan Greenspan’s boldfaced lie that nobody could have seen the crash coming, materialists understood full well what was on the way. What puzzled us was the dimension and duration of the boom.

But in certain ways, the academy did miss the obvious. Cogent analyses of capitalism were never part of the discourse in most fields. Instead, capital became too abstract a force, divorced from reality. Everything could be read as a manifestation of capital and rote critiques made for an easy conclusion to "critical" essays. Such deep reading wasn’t deep at all, really, and thus its understandable that such "lite" criticism was rejected wholesale under network culture.

Instead, other explanatory models rose to the fore, models like actor-network-theory. Famously, Bruno Latour asked the rhetorical question "Why has Critique Run Out of Steam?" For Latour and most other advocates of Actor-Network-Theory, capitalism was as much a construct produced by Marxists as an actual entity. Instead, they argued, agency had to be traced across a network of actors, both human and non-human. 

The sad thing about all this is that Actor-Network Theory wound up about as useful as lite criticism, which is not very much. To be mean: how is it that Actor-Network Theory proves so irrelevant to the contemporary crisis? Why, in other words, did it run out of steam? 

Let’s turn all the talk about Marxist analysis being irrelevant in the 2000s on its head, where it belongs: Marxist analysis was way ahead of the game. It proved far more relevant than monetarism in the end. Our contemporary crisis is a crisis of overaccumulation. If that’s not clear to you, then go and read Marx or Arrighi or Mandel or Braudel or any one of a number of thinkers who explain it well. For here perhaps Latour might have something if we read him against the grain: see, it wasn’t Marxism that was irrelevant—it was the construction of Marxism’s irrelevance. A world beholden to the bubble—including in academia—simply never understood that nothing had really changed, except for the level of delusion.  


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