I am delighted to be one of ten scholars, writers, and artists speaking at the Baltimore Museum of Art this Saturday about ten chairs from the collection in their newly re-opened American Wing. The event starts at 2pm. If you are in town, please join us. I'd love to say hello.
I will be talking about the Elastic Chair, produced by Boston manufacturer Samuel Gragg. In 1808, long before Charles Eames or even Michael Thonet, Gragg patented a technique for bending wood with steam. Inspired by the Klismos, an ancient Greek chair, together with the ancient Greek methods of bending wood, Gragg's elastic chair employed the highest technology of its day. As we look at it today, we confront a time that is curiously like our own, faced with a past that forms a massive repository of precedent that we can’t get away from and an obsession with the possibilities of technology as a means of advancing both industry and society.
It's a privilege to be speaking about the work of Aleksandra Kasuba at the National Art Gallery (Nacionaline Dailes Galerija) in Vilnius this coming Thursday at 5pm.
One of my earliest memories, from when I was four, is crawling through her Live-in Environment, which she had installed in the townhouse that she and her husband, sculptor Vytautas Kasuba owned. You can imagine the impact it had on me.
In my talk, I will focus on Kasuba’s constructions of the 1960s and 1970s in which she worked with high technology fabric from Dupont to create environments that occupy a third spatial order, neither art nor architecture. I will also read her work against a larger discourse on art and architecture in New York City at the time, revealing her own approach to problems that challenged other avant-garde artists and designers of the day.
The occasion is the opening of a reconstruction of her 1975 project "Spectrum, an Afterthought " which she conceived of after the installation of "Spectral Passage" at the De Young Museum in San Francisco.
Kasuba's work is uncannily similar, and in many ways to the digital architecture of the contemporary era (not to mention Richard Serra's torqued ellipses). Still, the diaphanous qualties of the fabrics that she worked with give it a lighter feel and mark it as distinct from architecture (she was neither trained as an architect nor did she consider herself to be one). Instead, it strikes me that these kind of inhabitations are closer to tents, perhaps structures that nomads might construct within the non-places of the contemporary world. Imagine if airports were filled with structures like these, as spaces to pause in.
If you are in Vilnius that day, I hope you can make it. I'm afraid that my talk will be in English although I'll be delighted to take questions in Lithuanian as well as English.
My essay "the Rise and Fall of New Media" can be found in the twentieth anniversary issue of Frieze and online their site here. It's paired with an essay by Lauren Cornell of Rhizome and the New Museum. Together, both deal with the issue that far from being a niche interest, as Cornell writes, "every kind of artistic practice has been touched by the Internet as both a tool and as something that affects us in a broader sense…"
Posting has been light this summer as I've moved into a new house (modernism, even!) but things have been moving behind the scenes. With the new semester coming up, expect more on the way.
I don't see how can I avoid sounding like an ogre or troll in this post but there's no sense in writing for print anymore.
I'm faced with a huge amount of work on my plate and something has to what give. Since I'm already spending too little time on the blog and my book, I have to find something to cut. The victim is the print-only journal. I wish it well.
Network culture begins with a condition of information overload. Having grown up in a house with a massive library, I can appreciate the desire to have books and journals at hand and I sought to emulate my father in collecting for a while, but gave it up almost a decade ago. Objects consume scarce resources and space. Books and journals are still the worst offenders in my house. Even as cull them without mercy, they pile up around me, largely unread, passed by in a day when there's too much to do.
Let's face it, a personal library is the academic's version of an SUV. It's handy for when you need it, but it's big and unwieldy, a poor choice when it comes to ecology and not a defensible option in a world of limits except for those who really, truly need them.
The journals that I read regularly—the New Left Review, Mute Magazine, Eurozine, and Domus (to name a select few)—are already on the Net. There are few print-only publications and I read none of them regularly. Fetish objects like the New City Reader, Junk Jet, Volume, or Loud Paper generally wind up on the Internet in reduced or pirated form. You have to pay—or otherwise seek out—the original format if that's what you want, but the content is there for the taking.
Google books makes it possible to search through new and old books alike while pirate book sites mean that it's easy to carry thousands of books in a laptop. Pirating may be illegal now, but it's thriving—take the book scanning movement, for example—and is just the faintest ripple in the surface of the ocean before the tides pull back and then the tsumani hits.
If not in this decade, then surely within two decades virtually all publishers—book, journal, and newspaper will provide universities with everything they publish in digital form. Within that time, as I pointed out at the CCA on Thursday, most archives will also be online.
A book or journal that in print form only is inadequate for our age. It cannot be properly searched. Hand-made indices have some degree of utility, but no matter how intelligent the maker of the index was, remain reductive, the product of one mind that can't adequately foresee everything the text will be used for. Full-text search is revolutionary for scholarship.
Then there's portability. Like so many of my colleagues, I travel frequently, both overseas and across the Hudson to Columbia. I clung to slides until 2006 when travelling to Ireland to teach made that impossible. Books are the same. It's entirely different to have my library at my fingertips as I type.
But is this historian's desire so new? While teaching in Brazil, Braudel would visit Europe periodically and employ microfilm to record material in archives for later references. I'm confident that if Benjamin were alive today, he'd be surfing book pirate Web sites instead of frequenting old bookstores, collecting PDFs in his laptop, just in case the sites wind up shut down.
Moreover, there's another ethical question, beyond the viability of publishers which I suspect will survive in this new world (printing presses, may be another matter). A friend once told me that while she was teaching in South America, she translated my texts for her students. At the time, she explained, my work was just about the only informed commentary on contemporary architecture available online and her university lacked the funds to acquire books and journals or pay for access to material behind paywalls. Her message hit home: print publications and paywalls maintain a global imbalance of intellectual resources.
There's nothing more tiresome than the aged (or young) scholar lamenting the lack of intellectual rigor online. Surely such learned individuals have heard of the Johannes Trithemius, the Abbot of Sponheim who published his De laude scriptorum manualium, defending the tradition of script against the printing press in 1492? Our fields were hardly more rigorous in the postmodern 1980s or the post-structuralist 1990s let alone the heroic era of the 1920s. Plenty of material not worth the ink and paper it cost to print was published back then.
Instead of lamenting print, let's work together to break down paywalls, physical or electronic. Those of us in the academy are not in the business of knowledge, we're in a community of knowledge, a community that transcends old limits. Let's embrace that.
It will be my charge to edit articles on Web sites, films, software, digital books, databases, and other media at a moment in which my field is undergoing a revolutionary transition. I am in debt to Beatriz for paving the way by creating a stellar review section, to David Brownlee, JSAH editor for inviting me to take part in his journal, and to Dean Wigley for his support in this new endeavor.
If you are a historian of architecture and you read my blog, please do contact me using the form on the left. This is a most exciting appointment.
I’ve put a revised version of the introduction to my book on network culture together with the first chapter—on atemporality—on my site. I hope you’ll be as excited to read this material as I am to post it.
I know that I owe my most readers a few words of explanation about why it took over a year to post a chapter that I had initially thought I’d have up within a couple of months.
First, I had the honor of writing a chapter in Networked: A (Networked) Book on (Networked) Art. As part of this project, I agreed that I wouldn’t take the material for the chapter and immediately publish it on my own site. That material, like a lot of the research I did last year requires substantial reworking to fit the book (little of it is in the first chapter…you’ll see it later, in the chapter on poetics).
Second, I’ve thoroughly rethought the book during the intervening year not once but repeatedly. This is hardly a crisis, but rather the way that I—and many historians—write. Revise again and again as you nibble at unformed parts until everything comes together.
Some of you have asked how the revision process works, so I’ve left the record on the site, just go to the revisions tab for any section and compare the current version with earlier ones. Of all the revisions, the most significant is a new model of historical succession that I find simply works for network culture. Whereas last year I had some uncertainty about just how this book would be a history, the first chapter—which of course is on history—now makes my strategy of relying on Michel Foucault and Jeffrey Nealon’s model of intensification emphatically clear.
Speaking of revisions, make no mistake, there are plenty of rough patches in these chapters. This is, after all, a draft. Don’t read it if you want a finished product. But also don’t think you should hold back on your commentary. Whether at Networked or at the other ventures including this one, networked books have largely failed at generating comments. Don’t let that stop you. If you see a problem in the text call me out on it wherever you feel appropriate. The more that I can draw on the massive collective intelligence of my readership, the better this project wil be.
While I’m on the topic of collective intelligence… This first chapter owes much to a dialogue that Bruce Sterling and I have maintained between our blogs (take, for example, Bruce’s discussion of atemporality in his keynote address at Transmediale this year) and on Twitter with many of you. All of the kind attention that this dialogue brought during the first few months of the year makes me think that my attempt to write a history of atemporality is both timely and untimely (in Nietzsche’s sense).
Finally, a word about the book title. It’s very much in flux now, but I’m thinking it might be "Life After Networks: A Critical History of Network Culture."
I wanted to lay out some thoughts about atemporality in response to Bruce Sterling’s great presentation on the topic over at Transmediale.* We’ve had a dialogue about this back and forth over the net, in places like Twitter and it’s my turn to respond.
The topic of atemporality is absorbing my time now. I have the goal of getting the first chapter of my book on network culture up by the end of next month (I know, last year I thought it would be the end of March of that year, but so it goes) and it is the core of an article that I’m working on at present for the Cornell Journal of Architecture.
Anyway, I was impressed by how Bruce framed his argument for network culture. This isn’t a new master narrative at all, there’s no need to expect the anti-periodization take-down to come, or if it does, it’ll be interesting to see the last living postmodernists. Instead, network culture is a given that we need to make sense of. I was also taken by how Bruce gave it an expiry date: it’s going to last about a decade before something else comes along.
Then there’s Bruce’s tone, always on the verge of laughter. It’s classic Bruce, but it’s also network culture at work, the realm of 4chan, lolcatz, chatroulette and infinite snark. And I can imagine that one day Bruce will say "It’s all a big joke. I mean come on, did you think I was serious about this?" And I’d agree. After all, a colleague once asked me if the Internet wasn’t largely garbage, a cultural junkspace devoid of merit? Of course, I said, what do you take me for a fool? She replied by saying she was just wondering since after all, I studied it. I said, well yes, it’s mainly dreck but what are you going to do with these eighty trillion virtual pages of dreck, wave your hands and pretend they’ll go away? It’s not going to happen. So yes, snark is how we talk about this cultural ooze, because that’s not only what it deserves, it’s what it wants. To adopt a big word from literary criticism: snark is immanent to network culture.
I was also taken by Bruce’s description of early network culture and late network culture. Again, network culture isn’t a master narrative. It has no telos or end goal. We’re not going to hold up Rem Koolhaas or hypertext or liberalism or the Revolution or the Singularity, Methusalarity or anything else as an end point to history. In that, we part from Hegel definitively. Instead, network culture is transitional. Bruce suggests that it has ten years before something else comes along. He also talks about early network culture, which we’re in now, and late network culture, which we can’t really anticipate yet.
I think he’s on to something there, but I think we need to make a further division: network culture before and after the crash. The relentless optimism of the pre-crash days is gone, taking starchitecture, Dubai (remember Dubai?), post-criticism, the magazine era, Prada, and hedge fund trading with it. We are in a different phase now, in which portents of collapse are as much part of the discourse as the next big thing. Let’s call it the uneasy middle of network culture.
Things are much less sure and they’re unlikely to get any better anytime soon. It’s going to be a slow ten years, equal to the 70s or maybe somewhere between the 70s and the 30s. Instead of temporary unemployment, we’re looking at a massive restructuring in which old industries depart this mortal coil. Please, if you are out of work, don’t assume the jobs will return when the recession ends. They won’t. They’re gone.
But as Bruce suggested, we have to have some fun with network culture. Over at the Netlab research blogs, we’re starting to put together a dossier of evidence about practices of atemporality in contemporary culture. You’ll be hearing a lot more about atemporality from me over the next month.
*The talk is below.
If you prefer, you can now read the transcript online here.
Over the course of the last year, I’ve read and reread Jeffrey Nealon’s Foucault Beyond Foucault . Works centering on a particular philosopher are almost always formulaic and rarely interesting. This is a notable exception. Anyone with an interest in theorizing contemporary culture should get Foucault Beyond Foucault. Nealon re-reads Foucault for the present day in a highly intelligent way. To reduce his argument to a sound bite, Nealon looks at Foucault through the lens of Deleuze’s essay on the societies of control.The central point of Nealon’s book is Foucault (and Deleuze’s) concept of “intensification,” which explains the way that power operates in contemporary society.
For Foucault, this charting of emergent modes of power is hardly a story of progress or Enlightenment, but a story of what he calls the increasing ‘intensity’ (intensité) of power: which is to say its increasing ‘lightness’ and concomitant ‘economic’ viability, in the broadest sense of the word ‘economic.’ Power’s intensity most specifically names its increasing efficiency within a system, coupled with increasing saturation. As power becomes more intense, it becomes ‘more economic and more effective’ (“plus economique et plus efficace”; D&P, 207). In this sense, the genealogical shift from torturing the body to training it is hardly the eradication of the punitive gesture; rather it works to extend and refine the efficacy of that gesture by taking the drama of putative power and resistance out of the relatively scarce and costly criminal realms and into new situations or ‘markets’—to everyday life in the factory, the home, the school, the army, the hospital.” (32)
Nealon reads our society of control (and with it what I call network culture) as an intensification of both postmodernism and modernism, a far more effective system than the disciplinary society that Foucault analyzed. Nealon’s discussion of contemporary economics is also insightful: he explains that Marx’s old model of M-C-M’ (where M is money, C is a commodity, and M’ is more money generated by the production and sale of the commodity) is now dethroned by M-M’, speculative finance. This is crucial for understanding our contemporary economic condition.
So many of the recent events and discussions in architecture remind me of material I covered in my dissertation. Some of the writing is juvenalia, some of it is prophetic. Either way, it ensured I’d be persona non grata around Cornell ever since.
Enough people ask me about it that I should upload it and see what the response is. Since the original files are now fifteen years old, forgive me for the inevitable formatting problems and the lack of illustrations (a list is appneded to give you an idea of what you missed).
I produced the attached text a few months after the dissertation itself, incorporating further revisions.
The abstract reads as follows.
The Spectacle of the Innocent Eye:
Vision, Cynical Reason, and
The Discipline of Architecture in Postwar America
In this dissertation, I trace the growth of cynical reason and the spectacle in postwar American architecture by examining the emergence of a new attitude toward form in postwar American architecture and the rise of the group of architectural celebrities that represented it.
From the 1950s onward, a number of architectural educators–most notably Colin Rowe and John Hejduk–derived a theory of architectural design from the visual language developed by graphic art educators Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and Gyorgy Kepes. The architectural educators’ intent was to solidify architecture’s claim to artistic autonomy through a focus on the rigorous use of form. In doing so, they hoped to resist the threat to architecture as a discipline, then having its domain of inquiry attacked by the encroaching social sciences and engineering.
Like Moholy-Nagy and Kepes, the architectural educators aimed to create an innocent eye in the student, restricting vision to instantaneous, prelinguistic perception of two-dimensional formal relationships. The student would become a retinalized subject under the influence of outside forces rather than an agent capable of independent action and hence ethically responsible in their life and architecture. In addition, the new theory of architecture was unable to divest itself of its origin in graphic art and produced a formally complex but atectonic, cardboard (-like) architecture.
Against this background, I investigate the rise of the movement’s representatives–Peter Eisenman, Michael Graves, Richard Meier, and Robert Stern–and their relationship to their patron, Philip Johnson. Together, they promoted each other and cardboard architecture, as well as a history and architecture reduced to image.
But history has a material reality: in the 1930s, Johnson participated in the American fascist movement and left as evidence a body of fascistic and antisemitic texts he wrote for publications in the movement. Since then he and his promoters, among them Stern and Eisenman, have carefully repressed his past by making it into a public secret. Ultimately, the kids do not have innocent eyes: along with Johnson they have promoted a spectacular architectural discourse of cynicism.
"I am unpacking my library. Yes, I am." That’s how Walter Benjamin begins the essay which, not surprisingly, he calls "Unpacking My Library." Benjamin, whose library has been packed in boxes during two years of instability caused by personal and political troubles, recalls his intellectual development as he pulls books out one by one. Each book reminds him of where he bought it, why he bought it, and his frame of mind at the time. Thinking of himself as a specimen of that twentieth-century type, the collector, Benjamin writes
…ownership is the most intimate relationship that one can have to objects. Not that they come alive in him; it is he who lives in them. So I have erected one of his dwellings, with books as the building stones, before you, and now he is going to disappear inside, as is only fitting.
The library, Benjamin’s passage suggests, is not only a data bank, it is an mnemonic device for an intellectual’s life.
Like many days this year, I find myself in the same situation as Benjamin. When we moved from Los Angeles, I decided to put most of my books in storage, leaving them in boxes in the basement. The official story I told was that we would be moving out of the place we were renting into a permanent home soon and it would be too much of a hassle to unpack all of the books only to repack them a few years later. Moreover, with a toddler around the house, the books would be sitting targets.
But this was only a ruse. I had decided long ago that it was time to rid myself of these things. Moving from Los Angeles only confirmed my feelings. After the movers had gone, I looked at my apartment and thought about the shelves that once lined them, stuffed full with books.
"The modernists had it right all along," I said to myself, "but damn them. They wrote too many books." I resolved to do something about this.
With three of my own books published last fall, my pace slowed from frantic to manic and I had some time in the evenings to unpack my library, but not to lovingly put it back on the shelves as Benjamin did. Instead, I would sell it off mercilessly.
As I unpack a book, I evaluate it. What are the chances that I’ll want to read it again? If not (and in most cases I am not going to read a book that has sat in a box for two years anytime in the near future), I enter the book’s ISBN code into a Web page on Amazon.com, describe its condition, and assign a price, which according to an unwritten code shared among the more honorable book sellers on Amazon, will be a penny less than the least expensive exemplar of that book already on sale. When an order comes, I have a procedure set up. I print out the packing slip, put the book in an appropriate envelope, weigh it, and then print out a mailing label on a label printer. On average I sell a book or two a day, but as I put more of my library up for sale, the number of books I sell rises. The curious can see what I have for sale here.
[not my library but rather Philip Johnson’s]
Into my thirties, this would have been foreign for me. My father is an artist and a book collector although he prefers the term bibliophile. His collections are not insignificant and are on display in Vilnius, Lithuania in a museum dedicated to them (together with his art work) and have been the topic of a dissertation at Vilnius University. Emulating him, I began collecting books as a child, although sadly all of those were discarded over the years by my parents (from a psychoanalytic point of view, I suspect my past and present attitude toward book collecting is related to this loss). From the 1980s through the late 1990s, I built a small library of art, architecture, and theory books, perhaps four or five thousand volumes, along with a reasonable collection of records and CDs. In this, I could empathize with both Benjamin and my father.
But things are different now. Benjamin was only twenty-five years older than my father and they shared the same world. Book were precious objects, defined by their scarcity. The bookstore, particularly the used bookstore run by a keen-eyed bookseller in a large city, was a shrine for them.
My moment is quite different. Today virtually any book is available on the Internet for a few dollars and a few days wait. Used book stores are disappearing. London’s famed Charing Cross, mecca for the book lovers from around the world, is all but defunct.
[another image from Johnson’s library]
The musty smell of the used bookstore fades from my memory. I can’t recall the last time I went into one for pleasure. Perhaps a decade ago in Los Angeles? I remember the bitterness that I felt when I tried to sell a box of art boxes to that bookseller and he offered me twenty dollars. I knew that I had spent dozens of times that amount on the books within and I knew he would retain a substantial margin. Of course he had to eat and he employees and rent to pay, but nevertheless I left in disgust. I was a good customer but I wouldn’t return. On Amazon, my books sell for a sizable fraction of their original price. Some books, out of print but still in demand, sell for much more.
Today if I need a book, I can guarantee that it will be here in a matter of days. So why should I hang on to it when I am done with it? It’s better to pass it on into the hands of someone else who wants it enough to pay for it.
There is no question that I lose memories as I sell off my unwanted books, but there are other considerations. My father is proud of his collection—after all it is part of the Lithuanian National Museum now—but he is also melancholy. The amount of matter to haul around and preserve weighs heavily on the soul. Selling my books allows me to realize, if even partially, Superstudio’s greatest dream: life without objects.
The global continuum of information and product flow that we live in means anything is available to anyone at any time. When that is possible, the need for permanent ownership ceases. Does life become a constant field of variation, our possessions an endlessly reconfigurable but minimal set of objects?