Thursday, 18 September 2014

The Act of Copying

^Cast Courts at the Victoria & Albert Museum (source)

Aside from qualified usage in fine-art contexts, copying is generally thought of as a negative act, something which detracts from its source, and there are formidable legislative structures in place to prevent its unlicensed proliferation. Originality, creativity, novelty, innovation, these are ideals that we are told to actively pursue in our working lives. No management consultant would come to your company and tell you to slavishly copy someone else’s designs, or office structure down to the smallest detail, no matter how great the office in question. No good contemporary teacher would ask his or her class to memorise the entirety of an epic poem by rote, no matter how great the poem. 

Today’s all important quality is originality, and so the epic poem is not memorised, but reinterpreted, not recited but performed and reinvented by the class, all in the search for innovation. But copying in its most positive sense is a creative act, in fact it lies at the very foundation of creativity. It is only through the hard work of copying, of systematically reproducing something as in traditional pedagogy, that one can fully digest and comprehend the fullness of what came before, understand it in all its complexity, failures and triumphs, and therefore be able to eventually move beyond it. Every time a new Asian economy raises itself to manufacturing powerhouse status, I hear people dismiss its rise as not being a threat to us because “they only know how to copy, not innovate”. But it is precisely this movement through a period of intense study, analysis and imitation of predecessors that paves the way for a profound and entirely singular leap forward in firmly grounded innovation. Just look at those copiers who are now arch-innovators like Japan, Taiwan, emerging S Korea and soon China. 

Without the studied and entirely positive process of copying, we will only move like crabs sideways, endlessly searching for titillating novelty which is bereft of substance, because genuine newness comes rarely, and can only arise out of a totally thorough understanding of what came before. Architectural education currently has a dearth of copying and a surfeit of apparent novelty. If given precedents at all, students (even in their first year) are pressured to critically re-read, re-interpret, re-analyse and rapidly re-design and re-imagine whatever building, project, square, or city they have been handed to study. There is never the slightest chance that they may have the time to slowly comprehend the subtle complexities of their object of analysis, and thereby be handed the chance to one day surpass it. Instead they are goaded into generating sexy click-bait that has all the depth of a very well-illustrated conceit, and like satirical illustrations are entirely dependent on precedents that have been barely understood, let alone been superseded. Let us have a break from originality for a while, let the kids copy.


Sunday, 17 August 2014

The Idea of a City

^Ideal City, school of Piero della Francesca

In dialogue with Glaucon in Plato's republic, Socrates defends his 'reasonable', but apparently unfeasible notions for the ideal city-state -Kalipolis- as being an exploration in the realm of ideas, and hence above the distracting contingencies of practical consideration, and in any case Kalipolis -in its perfection- will ultimately be imitated imperfectly by reality in pursuit of betterment, placing it above humdrum reality and any of its own specific and flawed progeny.



"'Do you doubt an artist's competence if he paints a paradigmatically good-looking human being, and portrays everything perfectly well in the painting, but can't prove that a person like that could actually exist?'

'I certainly do not,' he protested.

'Well, aren't we saying that we're trying to construct a theoretical paradigm of a good community?'

'Yes.'

'Then do you doubt our competence as theoreticians in this context if we can't prove that a community with our theoretical constitution could actually exist?'

'Of course not,' He said.

'So that's how matters really stand,' I said. 'However, if for your sake I also have to apply myself to proving how and under what circumstances it might get as close as possible to viability, then although this is a different kind of argument, I must ask you to make the same concession as before.'


'What concession?'

'Is it possible for anything actual to match a theory?Isn't any actual thing bound to have less contact with truth than a theory, however much people deny it? Do you agree or not?'

'I do,' he said.

'So please don't force me to point to an actual case in the material world which conforms in all respects to our theoretical construct. If we can discover how a community's administration could come very close to our theory, then let's say that we've fulfilled your demands and discovered how it's all viable. I mean, won't you be satisfied if we get that close? I would.'

'I would too,' he said.


Thursday, 17 July 2014

Babel



This is a poem of mine that was published in the July 2014 edition of the biannual Brittle Star Magazine

Please see the bottom of this post for a recorded version of the piece spoken by me.


......................................................................................................


Sometimes he felt like he was outside of himself, looking with slight disdain at the expressionless features of his face, but still feeling his face somehow, numbly, like putty. This happened a lot in taxis. Often, he was attached to his body the way the lens in a phone is connected to its owner as it snaps the selfie in a mirror. Sometimes it was worse, much worse. Sometimes he felt like he was just a volume of paper thin skin encompassing nothing, a human balloon terrified of pins, trying to pretend to everyone that everything is normal, when he was actually terrified, rigid with worry that he might just pop at any given moment. This mostly happened in the build up to office socials. Occasionally he was overcome with remorse. He would feel like he had been entirely unfaithful to his previous selves by attaining so little, by forgetting their dreams, by allowing their passions to be slowly doused in alcohol and BBC reruns. This mostly happened during hangovers. His generally applicable panacea of aimlessly surfing Vimeo’s Staff Picks would no longer work in these instances, so he would walk. Preferably up and down things, like ramps and stairs, regular repetitions of similarly sized steps, but outside, so he could feel the cold or heat on his face. This left few options in his vicinity that were suitable, namely the assortment of multi storey car parks whose ramps and stairs he would ascend and descend in alternation, up the stairs, down the ramps, down the road and up the ramps then down the stairs and so on. The guards were always too busy chatting to notice him and incrementally, with each step he took, he would fill out. Not feel good or anything like that, just that the terror would go away. As he climbed he would slowly lose the feeling that he was his own double, or that there was nothing inside him and he had to hide it, or that he was only the sum of other people’s opinions of him. These walks, usually at night, lit by neon, were the only times he started to feel that the grammar-less 20,000 word email full of misspellings that he usually felt himself to be was sort of fixing itself, adding full stops, using spell check, becoming legible. The car parks were his tower of babel. He was building with his feet, up and up, piling on top of each other, ever higher ramps and stairs and stairs and ramps. Precipitously, endlessly, he was reaching for himself, for his one unitary self, whole, sure and pristine. But every time, sure as with the biblical tower itself, the moment would come when he would shatter. Like a warning that you can and should never try and approach an ideal, even yourself, let alone God, just as he was able to gather a glimmer of relief, each and every time, he would splinter back into a thousand anxieties, a million viewpoints, each with their own language, lost and confused. In the broken wake of his collapsed edifice, he would return home haunted each time with all of his facebook pages and twitter profiles crowding around him and shouting at each other like demented and vengeful spirits.


Sunday, 13 July 2014

Ode to Sand



















Pure sand, how did you
accumulate, impalpable.
your divided grain
and sea belt, cup of the world,
planetary petal?
Were you gathering by the scream
of the waves and the wild birds
your eternal ring and dark unity?


Sand, you are
mother
of the ocean,
which in your innumerable rocks
deposited the seed of the species,
wounding
your nature with its green
bull’s seminal roars.
Naked on
your fragmentary skin
I feel
Your kiss, your murmur
running over me,
tighter than water,
air and time,
folding
into the lines of my body,
forming me again
and when
I continue roving
along the sea beach
the impress of my being stays for an instant
in your memory, sand,
until air,
wave
or night
erase my grey stamp in your domain.
Demolished silica,
scattered marble, crumbling
hoop,
pollen
from the sea depths,
marine dust,
you rise
in the silvery
dunes
like
the throat
of a dove,
you extend
in the desert,
sand
of the moon,
limitless,
circular and brilliant
like a ring,
dead,
only silence
until the wind whistles
and terrifyingly appears,
shaking
the pulverised stone,
the sheet
of salt and solitude,
and then
the sand, enraged,
sounds like a castle
crossed
by a squall of violins,
by the tumultuous velocity
of a sword in movement.


You fall
until man
gathers you
up with his spade
and in the building
mixture
serenely you appear,
returning
to stone,
to form,
building
a
dwelling
joined together again
to serve
the will of man.


............................................

By Pablo Neruda

Translated by George D. Schade

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Outside


A poem written as part of a film for a project exploring the allure of symbolic and open-ended architectural form. The full film HERE 






Monday, 3 March 2014

The Verse is Everything


Extract from p135 of the 2013 Penguin translation by Lara Gochin Raffaelli of Gabriele D'annunzio's 'Il Piacere'

The verse is everything. In the imitation of Nature, no instrument of art is more alive, agile, acute, varied, multiform, plastic, obedient, sensitive, faithful. More compact than marble, more malleable than clay, more subtle than fluid, more vibrating than a cord, more luminous than a gem, more fragrant than a flower, sharper than a sword, more flexible than a germinating shoot, more caressing than a murmur, more terrible than thunder, the verse is everything and is capable of everything. It can render the smallest motions of sentiment and the smallest motions of sensation; it can define the indefinable and say the unutterable; it can embrace the unlimited and penetrate the abyss; it can have dimensions of eternity; it can represent the superhuman, the supernatural, the awesome; it can inebriate like wine, ravish like ecstasy; it can possess at the same time our intellect, our spirit, our body; it can, ultimately, reach the Absolute. A perfect verse is absolute, immutable, immortal; it hols within it words with the coherence of a diamond; it encloses thought as in a precise circle that no force will ever manage to break; it becomes independent of any bond and any dominion; it belongs no longer to its creator, but to everyone and to no one, like space, like light, like immanent and perpetual things. A thought expressed exactly in a perfect verse is a thought that already existed preformed in the obscure depths of language. Extracted by the poet, it continues to exist in the consciousness of men. The greatest poet is therefore the one who knows how to uncover, extricate, extract a greater number of these ideal preformations. When the poet is near to the discovery of one such eternal verse, he is alerted by a divine torrent of joy that suddenly invades his entire being.

Friday, 28 February 2014

Alexander's Cup

^Still from Cadbury Flake Advert, 1992

Extract from p88 of the 2013 Penguin translation by Lara Gochin Raffaelli of Gabriele D'annunzio's 'Il Piacere'

This basin was historic: it was called Alexander’s Cup. It had been donated to the Princess of Bisenti by Cesare Borgia before he left for France to deliver the bill of divorce and the dispensation for marriage to Louis XII; and it must have been included among the fabled baggage carried by sumpter-mules that Valentinois brought with him when he entered Chinon, as described by the Seigneur de Brantome. The design of the figures that encompassed it and of those that arose from the rim of the two ends was attributed to Sanzio.

The cup was called Alexander’s because it had been created in memory of that prodigious one from which, at his great feasts, the Macedonian would prodigiously drink. Throngs of Sagittariuses encircled the sides of the vase with bows drawn, rioting, in wonderful poses like those Raphael painted, naked and shooting arrows toward the herm in the fresco found in the Borghese Gallery, decorated by Giovan Francesco Bolognesi. They were pursuing a great chimera, which rose up from the edge, like a handle, at one side of the vase, while on the opposite side bounded up the young Sagittarius Bellerophon with his bow drawn against the monster born of Typhon. The decorations of the base and the rim were of a pleasing elegance. The inside was gilded like that of a ciborium. The metal was as sonorous as a musical instrument. Its weight was five hundred pounds. Its entire form was harmonious.

Often, on a whim, Elena Muti would take her morning bath in that basin. She could immerse herself in it quite well if she did not stretch out; and nothing, in truth, was equal to the supreme grace of that body resting in the water which the gilt tinged with indescribably delicate reflections, because the metal was not yet silver, and the gold was fading.

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Nothing Comes From Nothing

^Massimo Scolari, Study Sketches for Invisible Cities, 1976-79


“In the design process, the imprecision of the sketch and digital precision are not in contradiction. It is a matter of two distinct but complementary mental sets wrongly cast in opposition; two graphic expressions which are, in any event, secondary after the clarity of the mental image that each architect should have well-defined before touching a computer or a pencil. This initial phase –the mind’s drawing- loves the slow pace and the silence of reflection, an unfolding dialogue with memory since nothing comes from nothing, and if something came from nothing, it can as quickly disappear into nothingness with a click of the mouse.”


Extract from Massimo Scolari's "Representations" published in Log 26, Fall 2012

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

The Prayer of the Touch




god almighty
god inconsolable
bird-legged god long-eared god short-tailed god
take me into the kennel askew into the freight train into the torn pocket
take me into the sea on your palm blow on my hair blow out my spare star
god standing apart
god inaccessible no way to approach to regain senses to dissolve
god with seven wings the real one
tell me something I don’t know something anything your voice is warm
tell me what it’s like on the other side how is the lighthouse how is it going
god night-blind buttercup wild vetch dead bird the starling
god the outskirts
god four steps to the porch dull mirror royal desolation
I brought you a candle a candy a pebble a crescent a broken latch
god of mine light and wise
god of mine sad
god of mine


Poem by Sergei Chegra
Second Prize in the 2012 Joseph Brodsky/Stephen Spender Prize, translated by Iryna Shuvalova


Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Taste, Style and Loos

^Il Bagno Blu in D'annunzio's Vittoriale. An extreme illustration of the points below.

Two extracts from the collection of translated essays by Loos "Creating Your Home With Style" that summarise in the most unadulterated form I could find his stance on the relationship between the inhabitants of a space, their evolution as human beings over time, the design of that space's interior and the disposition and gradual accumulation of objects and furniture within it governed by the interaction of those various agents. It is the only view I could conform to entirely in the collection, and whilst it was repeated in various guises elsewhere, it tended to get mixed up in strange ways with his fear of dirt, with his Anglophilia, hatred of ornament and his utter terror of freestanding cupboards, amongst other very odd things. This is followed by a small statement on the circularity of fashion as being at its core a primer for finding pleasure in things once loved, which given a certain period of time away from our gaze -with a drizzle of scorn- can once again be enjoyed... ad infinitum.

The painters however were right. They who, thanks to their training and experience, have a much sharper eye for all outward appearances, have always been able to recognize the superficial, pretentious, the alien, unharmonious nature of our “stylish” apartments. The people do not fit in with these rooms, nor do the rooms with the people. But how could they? The architect or the interior designer hardly even knows the name of the person for whom he is working. Even if the person has paid for the room 100-fold, they are still not his rooms. They always will remain the intellectual & spiritual property of the person who created them. That is why they do not, simply cannot appeal to the painter. They lack all intimacy and personal connection with the people who live in them. They lack that unique personal touch that he finds in the room of the simple peasant, the poor labourer, or the old spinster.

I did not, thank God, grow up in such a “stylish” apartment. It was just not possible at that time. Now, sadly, things have changed in my family as well. But in those days… Our table for instance, was a crazy jumble of wood adorned with some dreadful metal ornaments. But it was our table, our table! Can you imagine what that meant? Can you imagine the countless joyful hours that we spent at it –by the lamplight? In the evening when I was a little boy I could just not tear myself away from it, and my father had to imitate the night watchman’s horn to make me scuttle off in fright to the nursery. Then there was the desk, and on it the ink spot, where my sister Hermine had spilled ink on it when she was a tiny baby. And the pictures of my parents –what awful frames! But they were a wedding present from my father’s employees. And this old-fashioned chair here, a left-over from my grandmother’s home. And here a knitted slipper in which you can hang the clock, made in kindergarten by sister Irma. Every piece of furniture, every object, every thing had a story to tell –the story of our family. During the period in which the pressure to furnish one’s home in “style” became greater and greater –when all one’s acquaintances had “Old German” rooms, how could one simply refuse to adapt? So, all the old junk was thrown out. It might be junk for anyone else, but revered relics for the family. The rest was left up to the upholsterer.

Now we have had enough. We want to be masters of our own four walls again. If we lack taste, that’s fine, then we will furnish our homes in a taste-less manner. If we have good taste, all the better. But we refuse to be tyrannized by our own rooms any longer. We will buy everything we feel that we need and what appeals to us.

What appeals to us! That is the style that we have been seeking for so long, the style we wanted to bring into our apartments. The style that does not depend on all-pervading lion’s heads, but on taste –or, perhaps the lack of it- of an individual or family, things that comply with their sense of well-being. This sense would be underscored by the fact that the owner had selected all these objects & pieces of furniture in a room. And even if he were to prove to be somewhat capricious, especially regarding the choice of colours, it still would not be a disaster. A home that has grown along with the family can put up with quite a lot. Putting just one single ornament that does not belong into one of the “stylish” rooms can ruin the whole “effect”. In a “family” room it would immediately be absorbed into the whole. Such a room is somewhat like a violin: just as a violin is broken in by repeatedly playing it, a room can be “broken in” by living in it.

[]

Taste and the desire for change have always been closely linked. Today we wear narrow trousers; tomorrow they will be wide, and the day after narrow again. Every tailor knows this. Well then, couldn’t we just forgo the wide trouser period? Heavens no! We need it in order to enjoy our narrow trousers again. Just as we need a period of simple rooms for festive occasions in order to prepare us for the return of lavishly decorated ones.


Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Human Order

^Nazi Rally

The text below is part of the incendiary introduction to Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones. It lays out a brilliant premise for the sprawling novel. A virtuoso piece of writing in itself, these pages set the scene for a book that is definitely worth reading, even if it only partially reaches some of its aims, although its ambition is so vast, even a proportionally minuscule level of attainment would assure (and does assure) something quite notable.

"Political philosophers have often pointed out that in wartime, the citizen, the male citizen at least, loses one of his most basic rights, his right to life; and this has been true ever since the French Revolution and the invention of conscription, now almost a universally accepted principle. But these same philosophers have rarely noted that the citizen in question simultaneously loses another right, one just as basic and perhaps even more vital for his conception of himself as a civilised human being: the right not to kill. No one asks you for your opinion. In most cases the men standing above the mass grave no more asked to be there than the one lying, dead or dying, at the bottom of the pit. You might object that killing another soldier in combat is not the same thing as killing an unarmed civilian; the laws of war allow one but not the other; as does common morality. A good argument, in theory, but one that takes no account of the conditions of the conflict in question. The entirely arbitrary distinction established after the war between “military operation” like those of any other conflict and the “atrocities” carried out by a minority of sadists or psychopaths is, as I hope to demonstrate, a soothing fantasy of the victors – the western victors, I should specify, since the Soviets, despite all their rhetoric, have always understood what was what: after May 1945, having tossed a few bones to the crowd, Stalin couldn’t have cared less about some illusory “justice”; he wanted the hard stuff, cash in hand, slaves an equipment to repair and rebuild, not remorse or lamentations, for he knew just as well as we that the dead can’t hear our crying, and that remorse has never put bread on the table. I am not pleading Befehlnotstand, the just-obeying-orders so highly valued by our good German lawyers. What I did, I did with my eyes open, believing that it was my duty and had to be done, disagreeable and unpleasant as it may have been.. For that is what total war means: there is no such thing as a civilian, and the only difference between a Jewish child gassed or shot and the German child burned alive in an air raid is one of method; both deaths were equally vain, neither of them shortened the war by so much as a second; but in both cases, the man or men who killed them believed it was just and necessary; and if they were wrong, who’s to blame? What I am saying holds true even if you accept the artificial distinction between war and what the Jewish lawyer Lemkin baptized genocide; for it should be noted that in our century at least there has never yet been a genocide without a war, that genocide does not exist outside of war, and that like war, it is a collective phenomenon: genocide in its modern form is a process inflicted on the masses, by the masses, for the masses. It is also, in the case in question, a process segmented according to the demands of industrial method. Just as, according to Marx, the worker is alienated from the product of his labour, in genocide or total war in its modern form the perpetrator is alienated from the product of his actions. This holds true even for the man who places a gun to the head of another man and pulls the trigger. For the victim was led there by other men, his death was decided on by yet others, and the shooter knows that he is only the last link in a very long chain, and that he doesn’t have to ask himself any more questions than does a member of a firing squad who in civilian life executes a man duly sentenced under the law. The shooter knows that it’s chance that has appointed him to shoot, his comrade to guard the cordon, and a third man to drive the truck; at most he could try to change places with the guard or the driver. Another example, taken from the abundant historical literature rather than from my personal experience: the program for the destruction of severely handicapped and mentally ill Germans, called the “euthanasia” or “T-4” program, set up two years before the “Final Solution”. Here, the patients, selected within the framework of a legal process, were welcomed in a building by professional nurses, who registered them and undressed them; doctors examined them and led them into a sealed room; a worker administered the gas; others cleaned up; a policeman wrote up the death certificate. Questioned after the war, each one of these people said: What, me, guilty? The nurse didn’t kill anyone, she only undressed and calmed the patients, ordinary tasks in her profession.  The doctor didn’t kill anyone, either, he merely confirmed a diagnosis according to criteria established by higher authorities. The worker who opened the gas spigot, the man closest to the actual act of murder in both time and space, was fulfilling a technical function under the supervision of his superiors and doctors. The workers who cleaned out the room were performing a necessary sanitary job – and a highly repugnant one at that. The policeman was following his procedure, which is to record each death and certify that it has taken place without any violation of the laws in force. So who is guilty? Everyone, or no one? Why should the worker assigned to the gas chamber be guiltier than the worker assigned to the boilers, the garden, the vehicles? The same goes for every facet of this immense enterprise. The railway signalman, for instance, is he guilty of the death of the jews he shunted toward the camp? He is a railway employee who has been doing the same job for twenty years, he shunts trains according to a schedule, their cargo is none of his business. It’s not his fault if these Jews are being transported from point A, across his switches, to Point B, where they are to be killed. But this signalman plays a crucial role in the work of extermination: without him, the train of Jews cannot reach Point B. The same goes for the Civil Servant in charge of requisitioning apartments for air raid victims, the printer who prepares the deportation notices, the contractor who sells concrete or barbed wire to the SS, the supply officer who delivers gasoline to an SP Teilkommando, and God up above, who permits all this. Of course, you can establish relatively precise degrees of legal responsibility, which allow you to condemn some while leaving all the rest to their own conscience, assuming they have one; its even easier when the laws get written after the fact, as at Nurenberg. But even then they were sloppy. Why hang Streicher, the impotent yokel, but not the sinister von dem Bach-Zelewski? Why hang my superior Rudolf Brandt, and not his superior Wolff? Why hang the interior minister Frick and not his subordinate Stuckart, who did all his work for him? A lucky man, that Stuckart, who only stained his hands with ink, never with blood. Once again, let us be clear: I am not trying to say I am not guilty of this or that. I am guilty, you’re not, fine. But you should be able to admit to yourselves that you might also have done what I did. With less zeal, perhaps, but perhaps also with less despair, in any case one way or another. I think I am allowed to conclude, as a fact established by modern history, that everyone, or nearly everyone, in a given set of circumstances, does what he is told to do; and, pardon me, but there’s not much chance that you’re the exception, any more than I was. If you were born in a country or at a time not only when nobody comes to kill your wife and your children, but also nobody comes to ask you to kill the wives and children of others, then render thanks to God and go in peace. But always keep this thought in mind: you might be luckier than I, but you’re not a better person. Because if you have the arrogance to think you are, that’s just where the danger begins. We like to contrast the state, totalitarian or not, with the ordinary man, the insect or trembling reed. But then we forget that the State is made up of individuals, all more or less ordinary, each one with his life, his story, the sequence of accidents that led him one day to end up on the right side of the gun or the sheet of paper while others ended up on the wrong side. This path is very rarely the result of any choice, or even of personal predilection. The victims, in the vast majority of cases, were not tortured or killed because they were good any more than their executioners tormented them because they were evil. It would be a little naïve to think that way; allow me to suggest you spend a little time in a bureaucracy, even the Red Cross, if you need convincing. Stalin, by the way, conducted an eloquent demonstration of my argument, by transforming each generation of executioners into the victims of the following generation, without ever running out of volunteers. Yet the machinery of State is made of the same crumbling agglomeration of sand as what it crushes, grain by grain. It exists because everyone –even, down to the last minute, its victims- agrees that it must exist. Without the Hosses, the Eichmanns, The Godlidzes, the Vishinskys, but also without the railway signalmen, the concrete manufacturers, and the government accountants, a Stalin or a Hitler is nothing but a wineskin bloated with hatred and impotent terror. To state that the vast majority of the managers of the extermination processes were neither sadists nor sociopaths is now a commonplace. There were of course sadists and psychopaths among them, as in all wars, and these men did commit unspeakable atrocities, that’s true. It is also true that the SS could have stepped up its efforts to keep these people under control, even if it actually did more in that line than most people realise. And that’s not easy: just ask the American generals what a hard time they had of it in Vietnam, with their junkies and their rapists, smoking dope and fragging their officers. But that’s not the problem. There are psychopaths everywhere, all the time. Our quiet suburbs are crawling with paedophiles and maniacs, our homeless shelters are packed with raving megalomaniacs; and some of them do indeed become a problem, they kill two, three, ten, even fifty people –and then the very same State that would without batting an eye send them to war crushes them like a blood-swollen mosquito. These sick men are nothing. But the ordinary men that make up the state –especially in unstable times- now there’s the real danger. The real danger for mankind is me, you. And if you’re not convinced of this, don’t bother to read further. You’ll understand nothing and you’ll get angry with little profit for you or me."

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Pink Cloud *2


Pink Cloud. Pink. Cloud. Cloudy. Pinklike. ish. Bright Faded Cloud. Light, Pink Pure. Terror.

.........................................


The PinkCloud is rolling in, damp and strange.
It makes things clearer but pushes them very, very far away.
I'm a radar touching misty distances.




Friday, 3 May 2013

Gap



We don’t have a door, there’s just a gap, very narrow and quite deep. In fact it’s so tight that it presses against your chest as you squeeze yourself through. Some kind people have scrawled amusing felt-tip graffiti in it at eye level over the years. Getting to the loo, getting a cup of tea, bringing furniture and equipment in, anything like that becomes a bit of a mission, and you put it off for as long as possible. A few weeks ago an intern got dumped by his boyfriend and lodged himself in there, in floods of tears, knocking his head back and forth on the walls, effectively, and quite theatrically locking us all in for hours.

..........................................................................................................

This text was written for Pyramid Schemes, a project by Lawrence Lek and The White Review, for which contributors were asked to design a space in 100 words.

Thursday, 25 April 2013

The Room, The House, The City

^Charles Moore Foundation interior (Living Room)

"If (as the philosophers maintain) the city is like some large house, and the house is in turn like some small city, cannot the various parts of the house - atria, xysti, dining rooms, porticoes, and so on - be considered miniature buildings?"

Leon Battista Alberti

Thursday, 4 April 2013

Everything Is Filled With You



Everything is filled with you,
and everything is filled with me:
the towns are full,
just as the cemeteries are full
of you, all the houses
are full of me, all the bodies.

I wander down streets losing
things I gather up again:
parts of my life
that have turned up from far away.

I wing myself toward agony,
I see myself dragging
through a doorway,
through creation’s latent depths.

Everything is filled with me:
with something yours and memory
lost, yet found
again, at some other time.

A time left behind
decidedly black,
indelibly red,
golden on your body.

Pierced by your hair,
everything is filled with you,
with something I haven’t found,
but look for among your bones.

...................................
by Miguel Hernández

I came across this today. It devilishly mirrored something wandering around looking for someone, lost in circles, meeting itself again and again inside my head.

Saturday, 23 March 2013

The Bomb, The House, The Body

^V1 Rocket Damage in Antwerp 1944


“I live with my body in danger as regards menacing machines as well as manageable instruments. My body is everywhere: the bomb which destroys my house also damages my body insofar as the house was already an indication of my body. This is why my body always extends across the tool which it utilizes: it is at the end of the cane on which I lean against the earth; it is at the end of the telescope which shows me the stars; it is on the chair, in the whole house; for it is my adaptation to these tools.”

From Jean-Paul Sartre's "Being and Nothingness"

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

The Marvelous

^The Great Lawn, Central Park, in Spring <source>

In expectation of Spring, new things and old, here is an extract from Teju Cole's "Open City", 2011:

“In the spring, life came back into the earth’s body. I went to a picnic in Central Park with friends, and we sat under magnolias that had already lost their white flowers. Nearby were the cherry trees, which, leaning across the wire fence behind us, were aflame with pink blossom. Nature is infinitely patient, one thing lives after another has given way; the magnolia’s blooms doe just as the cherry’s come to life. The sun coming through the petals of the cherry blossoms dappled the damp grass, and new leaves, in their thousands, danced in the April breeze, so that, at moments, the trees at the far border of the lawn seemed insubstantial. I lay half in shadow, watching a black pigeon walk towards me. It stopped, then flew up, out of sight, behind the trees, then came back again, walking awkwardly as pigeons do, perhaps seeking crumbs. And far above the bird and me was the sudden apparition of three circles, three white circles against the sky.

In recent years I have noticed how much the light affects my ability to be sociable. In winter I retreat. In the long and sunny days following, in March, April, and May, I am much more likely to seek out the company of others, more likely to feel myself alert to sights and sounds, to colours, patterns, moving bodies, smells other than the ones in my office or at the apartment. The cold months make me feel dull, and spring feels like a gentle sharpening of the senses. In our little group in the park that day, we were four, all reclining on a large striped blanket, eating pitta bread and hummus, picking at green grapes. We kept an open bottle of white wine, our second of the afternoon, hidden in a shopping bag. It was a warm day, but not so warm that the great lawn was packed. We were part of a crowd of city-dwellers in a carefully orchestrated fantasy of country life. Moji had brought Ana Karenina with her, and she leaned on her elbow and read from the thick volume –it was one of the new translations- only occasionally interrupting herself to participate in the conversation. And a few yards away from us a young father calling out to his toddler who was wandering away: Anna! Anna!

There had been a plane travelling above us at such a height that the grumble of its jets was barely audible over our discussion. Then only its faint contrail remained, and just as that faded, we saw the three white circles growing. The circles floated, appearing to float upward at the same time as they were falling down, then everything resolved, like a camera viewfinder coming into focus, and we saw the human shape within each circle. Each person, each of these flying men, steered his parachute, to the left and to the right, and, watching them, I felt the blood race in my veins.

Everyone on the lawn was by now alert. Ball games stopped, chatter became loud, and many arms pointed upward. The toddler Anna, astonished as we all were, held onto her father’s leg. The parachuters were expert, floating towards each other until they were in a kind of shuttlecock formation, then drifting apart again, and steering toward the centre of the lawn. They came closer to earth, falling faster. I imagined the whoosh around their ears as they cut through the air, imagined the tight focus with which they were bracing themselves for landing. When they were at a height of some five hundred feet, I saw that they were dressed in white jumpsuits with white straps. The silken parachutes were like the enormous white wings of alien butterflies. For a moment, all surrounding sound seemed to fall away. The spectacle of men fulfilling the ancient dream of flight unfolded in silence.

I could almost imagine what it was like for them, surrounded by clear blue spaces, even though I’ve never skydived. Once, on a similarly fine day a quarter of a century ago, I had heard a boy’s cries. We were in the water, more than a dozen of us, and he’d drifted away toward the deep end. He couldn’t swim. We were in a large swimming pool on the campus of the University of Lagos. As a child, I had become a strong swimmer at my mother’s insistence, and somewhat to my father’s dismay, since he was himself afraid of water. She had taken me to lessons at the country club from the time I was five or six and, a good swimmer herself, she had watched without fear as I learned to be at home in the water; from her I had learned that fearlessness. I haven’t been in a pool in years but, once , my ability had made a difference. It was the year before I went away to NMS; I had saved another’s life.

This boy, of whom I remember nothing other than the fact that he was, like me, of mixed race (in his case, half-indian), was in mortal danger, drawn into increasingly deeper areas of the pool the more he struggled to keep his head above water. The other children, shocked into inaction by his distress, had remained in the shallow end, watching. There was no lifeguard present, and none of the adults, assuming any of them was a swimmer, was close enough to the deep end of the pool to help. I don’t remember deliberating, or considering any danger to myself, only that I set off in his direction as fast as I could. The moment that has stayed in my mind is of having not yet reached the boy but having already left the crowd of children behind. Between his cries and theirs, I swam hard. But caught in the blue expanse around me and above, I suddenly felt like I was no closer to him than I had been a few moments before, as though water intervened intentionally between where he was in the shadow of the diving structures and where I floated in the bright sunshine. I had stopped swimming, and the air cooled the water on my face. The boy flailed, briefly breaking the surface with frantic arms before he was pulled under again. The strong shadows made it difficult for me to see what was happening . I thought, for an instant that I would always be swimming toward him, that I would never cross the remaining distance of twelve or fifteen yards. But the moment was to pass, and I would become the hero of the day. There was laughter afterward, and the half-Indian boy was teased. But it might easily have been a tragic afternoon. What I hauled the short distance to the diving platform might have been a small, lifeless body. But almost all that day’s detail was soon lost to me, and what remained most strongly was the sensation of being all alone in the water, that feeling of genuine isolation, as though I had been cast without preparation into some immense and not unpleasant, blue chamber, far from humanity.

For the parachuters, the distance between heaven and earth began to vanish more quickly, and the ground suddenly rushed upward to meet them. Sound returned, and they landed, one after the other, neatly, in billowing clouds, to the whoops and whistles of picknickers in the park. I applauded, too. The parachuters slipped out from under their tents, crouching, and signaled to each other. Then they rose like victorious matadors, gesturing to the crowd, and were rewarded with our happy cries and louder applause.

Then it stopped. Above the noise, we heard the blaze of sirens on the east side of the park. Four officers came racing over the ropes around the perimeter of the lawn and ran toward its centre. One was white, one Asian, and the other two were black, all as ungainly in their movements as the parachuters had been balletic. We began to boo, safe in our numbers, and were pushed back from the congratulatory circle  we had formed, so that they could arrest the daredevils. Someone at the far end of the circle shouted “Security Theatre!” but the wind had picked up, and it swallowed her voice.

The parachutists did not resist arrest. No longer encumbered by their wings, they were led away by the police. The crowd began to cheer again, and the parachutists, all young men, grinned and bowed. One of them, taller than the other two, had a full ginger beard that glinted in the sun. The parachutes remained in a glossy heap in the grass and, when the wind picked up again, seemed to give off trembling exhalations. And so we watched the parachutes breathe for a while, while the men were led away. Then, but only after what seemed like a long time out of ordinary time, we came out of the marvellous and resumed our picnic.”

Sunday, 10 February 2013

Ode to Foster



walk the spiral
up out of the pavement
Into your reflection, into
transparency, into the space
where flat planes are curves
and you are transposed
as you go higher into a thought
of flying, joining the game
of brilliance and scattering
where fragments of poems,
words, names fall like glory
into the lightwells until
St Mary Axe is brimming

.....................................................

This is a poem by Jo Shapcott that I came across thanks to London Underground's ever enjoyable Poems On The Underground program.

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Ulysses



We walked to the quay for the fishermen's party
(red wine in plastic beakers, sandwiches
of fresh caught sardines, their treasure); sunlight
was making patterns on the water.

All these bits and pieces of our life,
like picnics and daylight-
it's a kaleidoscope, isn't it? I said,
paddling in a sea that had light in it.

Bits of the world dissolved, flowed
into octagons, flowers, a fluid geometry,
persuasive patterns; black was insisting
on becoming blue...

There's the adventure, you said -turquoise
becomes this sea... flowers are stars, a speck of fire
expands into a cosmos.
We are luckier than Ulysses.-

But, I said, the kaleidoscope needs
light to last. We stayed on the beach,
watching his sea and ours, the sun's late path.
We tried not to see light leaving the horizon.



From the poem "Our Mediterranean and the story of Ulysses"
by Daphne Gloag which made my day just a little bit beautiful yesterday.
You can purchase her collection "A Compression of Distances" here

Saturday, 25 August 2012

The Dead

^aftermath of a vehicular accident, University of Georgia (source)

The opening paragraphs of Karl Ove Knausgaard's 'A Death In The Family'. A thoughtful rumination on our relationship with the just deceased, and its irrational, atavistic infrastructure that forms its own architecture within and under that of the living, as well as motivating instantaneous and universal impulses, actions and rituals that are second nature to us, but which on second glance reveal themselves to be primordial, groundless and strange.

"For the heart, life is simple: it beats for as long as it can. Then it stops. Sooner or later, one day, this pounding action will cease of its own accord, and the blood will begin to run towards the body's lowest point, where it will collect in a small pool, visible from the outside as a dark, soft patch on ever whiter skin , as the temperature sinks, the limbs stiffen and the intestines drain. These changes in the first hours occur so slowly and take place with such inexorability that there is something almost ritualistic about them, as though life capitulates according to specific rules, a kind of gentleman’s agreement, to which the representatives of death also adhere, inasmuch as they always wait until life has retreated before they launch their invasion of the new landscape. By which point, however, the invasion is irrevocable. The enormous hordes of bacteria that begin to infiltrate the body's innards cannot be halted. Had they but tried a few hour s earlier, they would have met with immediate resistance: however, everything around them is quiet now, as they delve deeper and deeper into the moist darkness. They advance on the Haversian canals, the crypts of Lieberkuhn, the islets of Langerhans. They proceed to Bowman’s capsule in the kidneys, Clark’s column in the Spinalis, the black substance in the mesencephalon. And they arrive at the heart. As yet, it is intact, but deprived of the activity to which end its whole construction has been designed, there is something strangely desolate about it, like a production plant that workers have been forced to flee in haste, or so it appears, the stationary vehicles shining yellow against the darkness of the forest, the huts deserted, a line of fully loaded cable buckets stretching up the hillside.

The moment life departs the body, it belongs to death. At one with lamps, suitcases, carpets, door handles, windows. Fields, marshes, streams, mountains, clouds, the sky. None of these is alien to us. We are constantly surrounded by objects and phenomena from the realm of death. Nonetheless, there are few things that arouse in us greater distaste than to see a human being caught up in it, at least if we are to judge by the efforts we make to keep corpses out of sight. In larger hospitals they are not only hidden away in discreet, inaccessible rooms, even the ways there are concealed, with their own lifts and basement corridors, and should you stumble upon one of them, the dead bodies being wheeled by are always covered. When they have to be transported from the hospital it is through a dedicated exit, into vehicles with tinted glass; in the church grounds there is a separate, windowless room for them; during the funeral ceremony they lie in closed coffins until they are lowered into the earth or cremated in the oven. It is hard to imagine what practical purpose this procedure might serve. The uncovered bodies could be wheeled along the hospital corridors, for example, and thence be transported in an ordinary taxi without this posing a particular risk to anyone. The elderly man who dies during a cinema performance might just as well remain in his seat until the film is over, and during the next too for that matter. The teacher who has a heart attack in the school playground does not necessarily have to be driven away immediately; no damage is done by leaving him where he is until the caretaker has time to attend to him, even though that might not be until some time in the late afternoon or evening. What difference would it make if a bird were to alight on him and take a peck? Would what awaits him in the grave be any better just because it is hidden? As long as the dead are not in the way there is no need for any rush, they cannot die a second time. Cold snaps in the winter should be particularly propitious in such circumstances. The homeless who freeze to death on benches and in doorways, the suicidal who jump off high buildings and bridges, elderly women who fall down staircases, traffic victims trapped in wrecked cars, the young man who, in a drunken stupor, falls into the lake after a night on the town, the small girl who ends up under the wheel of a bus, why all this haste to remove them from the public eye? Decency? What could be more decent than to allow the girl’s mother and father to see her an hour or two later, lying in the snow at the site of the accident, in full view, her crushed head and the rest of her body, her blood-spattered hair and the spotless padded jacket? Visible to the whole world, no secrets, the way she was. But even this one hour in the snow is unthinkable. A town that does not keep its dead out of sight, that leaves people where they died, on highways and byways, in parks and car parks, is not a town but a hell. The fact that this hell reflects our life experience in a more realistic and essentially truer way is of no consequence. We know this is how it is, but we do not want to face it. Hence the collective act of repression symbolised by the concealment of our dead.

What exactly it is that is being repressed, however, is not so easy to say. It cannot be death itself, for its presence in society is much too prominent. The number of deaths reported in newspapers or shown on the TV news everyday varies slightly according to circumstances, but the annual average will presumably tend to be constant, and since it is spread over so many channels virtually impossible to avoid. Yet that kind of death does not seem threatening. Quite the contrary, it is something we want and will happily pay to see. Add the enormously high body count in fiction and it becomes even harder to understand the system that keeps death out of sight. If the phenomenon of death does not frighten us, why then this distaste for dead bodies? Either it must mean that there are two kinds of death or that there is a disparity between our conception of death and death as it actually turns out to be, which in effect boils down to the same thing: what is significant here is that our conception of death is so strongly rooted in our consciousness that we are not only shaken when we see that reality deviates from it, but we also try to conceal this with all the means at our disposal. Not as the result of some form of conscious deliberation, as has been the case with rites such as funerals, the form and meaning of which are negotiable nowadays, and thus have shifted from the sphere of the irrational to the rational, from the collective to the individual –no, the way we remove bodies has never been the subject of debate, it has always been just something we have done, out of a necessity for which no one can state a reason but everyone feels: if your father dies on the lawn one windswept Sunday in autumn, you carry him indoors if you can, and if you can’t, you at least cover him with a blanket. This impulse, however, is not the only one we have with regard to the dead. No less conspicuous than our hiding corpses is the fact that we always lower them to ground level as fast as possible. A hospital that transports its bodies upwards, that sites its cold chambers on the upper floors, is practically inconceivable. The dead are stored as close to the ground as possible. And the same applies to the agencies that attend them; an insurance company may well have its offices on the eight floor, but not a funeral parlour. All funeral parlours have their offices as close to street level as possible. Why this should be is hard to say; one might be tempted to believe that it was based on some ancient convention that originally had a practical purpose, such as a cellar being cold and therefore best suited to storing corpses, and that this principle had been retained in our era of refrigerators and cold-storage rooms, had it not been for the notion that transporting bodies upwards in buildings seems contrary to the laws of nature, as though height and death are mutually incompatible. As though we possessed some kind of chthonic instinct, something deep within us that urges us to move death down to the earth whence it came."


Saturday, 28 July 2012

Hedonism

^Titian's Bacchanal, 1523 (source)
Another extract from Arendt's The Human Condition, this time on the foundational nature of Pain as an ultimate referent. She is pointing out here that pleasure isn't, and never was or could be a measurable, quantifiable thing, positively in and of itself (as the Utilitarians and others saw it) which one can pursue and attain, but rather should be seen as the ancients saw it: as the absence of pain, so that hedonism (& stoicism, ascetism, epicurianism) is never the insatiable and accumulative pleasure of the gourmand, but rather the tranquil calm of the hermit.


"The principle of all hedonism, as we saw before, is not pleasure but avoidance of pain, and Hume, who in contradistinction to Bentham was still a philosopher, knew quite well that he who wants to make pleasure the ultimate end of all human action is driven to admit that no pleasure but pain, not desire but fear, are his true guides. "If you... inquire, why [somebody] desires health, he will readily reply, because sickness is painful. If you push your inquiries further and desire a reason why he hates pain, it is impossible he can ever give any. This is an ultimate end, and is never referred to by any other object." The reason for this impossibility is that only pain is completely independent of any object, that only one who is in pain really senses nothing but himself; pleasure does not enjoy itself but something besides itself. Pain is the only inner sense found by introspection which can rival in independence from experienced objects the self-evident certainty of logical and arithmetical reasoning."

Monday, 7 May 2012

Polis


^Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Phidias Showing the Frieze of the Parthenon to his Friends
Two extracts relating to the City (polis) from Hannah Arendt's The Human Condition, in which she explains how Greeks saw the built fabric -as they saw the structures of the law- as a clearly subservient, enabling framework whose entire reason for existence was exhausted in creating and then protecting the space in which political action, debate, oration, and discussion could occur, spectacularly, notably. The builders and craftsmen who dealt with putting up projects with definable outcomes, forms, and predictable lifespans, men who cut stone, layed-out the buildings on the agora, honed the acoustics in Greek theatres, penned the statute books and wrote down the legal structures of Democracy, these were the hard working but not heroic figures, who were there to build (for the first time in history) a world that was perfectly calibrated and designed for the active citizen-individual to show himself, doing, proposing, initiating, and acting in the public eye. They were backstage craft-caretakers of an environment where each person could be sure that the most highly valued, but most ephemeral of all things a man can bring into the world, namely the heroic act, the split second shining-forth of world-changing agency, the unrepeatable spark of transcendence, was not only given an audience in a built world calibrated for its maximum amplification, but that the built world would also act as its permanent embodiment, an assurance in stone that the intangible and endlessly precious chain of Human acts that make a polis would remain a story perpetually told. The city Homer.

“An outstanding symptom of this prevailing influence is that the Greeks, in distinction from all later developments, did not count legislating among the political activities. In their opinion, the lawmaker was like the builder of the city wall, someone who had to do and finish his work before political activity could begin. He therefore was treated like any other craftsman or architect and could be called from abroad and commissioned without having to be a citizen, whereas the right to be politeuesthai, to engage in the numerous activities which eventually went on in the polis, was entirely restricted to citizens. To them, the laws, like the wall around the city, were not results of action but products of making. Before men began to act, a definite space had to be secured and a structure built where all subsequent actions could take place, the space being the public realm of the polis and its structure the law; legislator and architect belonged in the same category. But these tangible entities themselves were not the content of politics (not Athens, but the Athenians were the polis), and they did not command the same loyalty we know from the Roman type of patriotism.”

“The polis –if we trust the famous words of Pericles in the Funeral Oration- gives a guaranty that those who forced every sea and land to become the scene of their daring will not remain without witness and will need neither Homer nor anyone else who knows how to turn words to praise them; without assistance from others, those who acted will be able to establish together the everlasting remembrance of their good and bad deeds, to inspire admiration in the present and future ages. In other words, men’s life together in the form of the polis seemed to assure that the most futile of human activities, action and speech, and the least tangible and most ephemeral of man-made “products”, the deeds and stories which are their outcome, would become imperishable. The organization of the polis, physically secured by the wall around the city and physiognomically guaranteed by its laws –lest the succeeding generations change its identity beyond recognition- is a kind of organized remembrance. It assures the mortal actor that his passing existence and fleeting greatness will never lack the reality that comes from being seen, being heard, and, generally, appearing before an audience of fellow men, who outside the polis could attend only the short duration of the performance and therefore needed Homer and “others of his craft” in order to be presented to those who were not there.”

Sunday, 8 April 2012

Lost Illusions


^ Richard Hamilton "Just what is it that makes today's homes so different, so appealing?" 1956

From Jonathan Franzen's "The Corrections". The final class of a course in Cultural Studies that one of the characters, Chip, teaches in a private college. After showing the class a 'cutting edge' series of adverts for office equipment, that builds up the story of an office staffed entirely by women, one of whom dies of cancer, but who's plight is turned to positive effect by her colleagues' online campaign to raise breast cancer awareness (via the office equipment bought from W_corp), he intends to complete the term by showing the class how to 'see through' to the cynicism at the heart of even such an apparently well-meaning and cleverly put-together campaign as this. The teacher's loyal but narrow espousals of Baudrillard et al's tail-chasing critiques come crashing down when faced with the incomprehension of a class unable, or more likely entirely unwilling to see past appearances, and the razor sharp contempt of a girl who not only sees through the ads initial appearances, but equally cuts through the flimsiness of Chip's moral condemnation, to the point where it is clearly just a subjective position, one resting entirely on arbitrary -and worse- totally unproductive, soul-sapping, no-end-in-sight, solution-less, critique for the sake of critique (and by implication: university tenures).
..............................................................................

A petite young woman names Hilton, a Chihuahua-like person, offered that it was “brave” and “really interesting” that Chelsea had died of cancer instead of surviving like you might have expected in a commercial.

Chip waited for someone to observe that it was precisely this self-consciously “revolutionary” plot twist that had generated publicity for the ad. Normally Melissa, from her seat in the front row, could be counted on to make a point like this. But today she was sitting by Chad with her cheek on her desk. Normally, when students napped in class, Chip called on them immediately. But today he was reluctant to say Melissa’s name. He was afraid that his voice might shake.

Finally, with a  tight smile, he said, “In case any of you were visiting a different planet last fall, lets review what happened with these ads. Remember Nielsen Media Research took the “revolutionary” step of giving episode six its own weekly rating. The first rating ever given to an ad. And once Nielsen rated it, the campaign was all but guaranteed an enormous audience for its rebroadcast during the November sweeps. Also remember that the Nielsen rating followed a week of print and broadcast news coverage of the ‘revolutionary’ plot twist of Chelsea’s death, plus the Internet rumour about Chelsea’s being a real person who’d really died. Which, incredibly, several hundred thousand people actually believed. Beat Psychology, remember, having fabricated her medical records and her personal history and posted them on the Web. So my question for Hilton would be, how ‘brave’ is it to engineer a sure-fire publicity coup for your ad campaign?”

“It was still a risk,” Hilton said. “I mean, death is a downer. It could have backfired.”

Again Chip waited for someone, anyone, to take his side of the argument. No one did. “So a wholly cynical strategy.” He said, “if there’s a financial risk attached, becomes an act of artistic bravery?”

A brigade of college lawn mowers descended on the lawn outside the classroom, smothering discussion in a blanket of noise. The sunshine was bright.

Chip soldiered on. Did it seem realistic that a small-business owner would spend her own money on special health-care options for an employee?

One student averred that the boss she’d had at her last summer job had been generous and totally great.
Chad was silently fighting off the tickling hand of Melissa while, with his free hand, he counterattacked the naked skin of her midriff.

“Chad?” Chip said.

Chad, impressively, was able to answer the question without having it repeated. “Like, that was just one office,” he said. “Maybe another boss wouldn’t have been so great. But that boss was great. I mean, nobody’s pretending that’s an average office, right?”

Here Chip decided to raise the question of art’s responsibilities vis-à-vis the Typical; but this discussion, too, was DOA.

“So, bottom line,” he said, “we like this campaign. We think these ads are good for the culture and good for the country. Yes?”

There were shrugs and nods in the sun-heated room.

“Melissa,” Chip said. “We haven’t heard from you.”

Melissa raised her head from her desk, shifted her attention from Chad, and looked at Chip with narrowed eyes.

“Yes,” she said.

“Yes what?”

“Yes, these ads are good for the culture and good for the country.”

Chip took a deep breath, because this hurt. “Great, OK,” he said. “Thank you for your opinion.”

“As if you care about my opinion,” Melissa said.

“I beg your pardon?”

“As if you care about any of our opinions unless they’re the same as yours.”

“This is not about opinions,” Chip said, “This is about learning to apply critical methods to textual artefacts. Which is what I’m here to teach you.”

“I don’t think it is, though,” Melissa said, “I think you’re here to teach us to hate the same things you hate. I mean, you hate these ads, right? I can hear it in every word you say. You totally hate them.”

The other students were listening raptly now. Melissa’s connection with Chad might have depressed Chad’s stock more than it had raised her own, but she was attacking Chip like an angry equal, not a student, and the class ate it up.

“I do hate these ads’” Chip admitted. “But that’s not …”

“Yes it is,” Melissa said.

“Why do you hate them?” Chad called out.

“Tell us why you hate them,” the little Hilton yipped.

Chip looked at the wall clock. There were six minutes left of the semester. He pushed his hands through his hair and cast his eyes around the room as if he might find an ally somewhere, but the students had him on the run now, and they knew it.

“The W_ Corporation,” he said, “is currently defending three separate lawsuits for antitrust violations. Its revenues last year exceeded the gross domestic product of Italy. And now, to wring dollars out of the one demographic that it doesn’t yet dominate, it’s running a campaign that exploits a woman’s fear of breast cancer and her sympathy with its victims. Yes, Melissa?”

“It’s not cynical.”

“What is it, if not cynical?”

“It’s celebrating women in the workplace,” Melissa said, “It’s raising money for cancer research. It’s encouraging us to do our self-examinations and get the help we need. It’s helping women feel like we own this technology, like it’s not just a guy thing.”

“Ok, good,” Chip said, “But the question is not whether we care about breast cancer, it’s what breast cancer has to do with selling office equipment.”

Chad took up the cudgels for Melissa. “That’s the whole point of the ad, though. That if you have access to information, it can save your life.”

“So if Pizza Hut puts a little sign about testicular self-exams by the hot-pepper flakes, it can advertise itself as part of the glorious and courageous fight against cancer?”

“Why not?” Chad said.

“Does anybody see anything wrong with that?”

Not one student did. Melissa was slouching with her arms crossed and unhappy amusement on her face. Unfairly or not, Chip felt as if she’d destroyed in five minutes a semester’s worth of careful teaching.
“Well, consider,” he said, “that ‘You Go, Girl’ would not have been produced if W_ had not had a product to sell. And consider that the goal of the people who work at W_ is to exercise their stock options and retire at thirty two, and that the goal of the people who own W_ stock” (Chip’s brother and sister-in-law, Gary and Caroline, owned a great deal of W_ stock) “is to build bigger houses and buy bigger SUVs and consume even more of the world’s finite resources.”

“What’s wrong with making a living?” Melissa said. “Why is it inherently evil to make money?”

“Baudrillard might argue,” Chip said, “that the evil of a campaign like ‘You Go, Girl’ consists in the detachment of the signifier from the signified. That a woman weeping no longer just signifies sadness. It now also signifies: ‘Desire office equipment.’ It signifies: ‘Our bosses care about us deeply.’”

The wall clock showed two-thirty. Chip paused and waited for the bell to ring and the semester to end.

“Excuse me,” Melissa said, “but that is just such bullshit.”

“What is bullshit?” Chip said.

“This whole class,” she said. “It’s just bullshit every week. It’s one critic after another wringing their hands about the state of criticism. Nobody can ever quite say what’s wrong exactly. But they all know it’s evil. They all know ‘corporate’ is a dirty word. And if somebody’s having fun or getting rich –disgusting! Evil! And it’s always the death of this and the death of that. And people who think they’re free aren’t ‘really’ free. And people who think they’re happy aren’t ‘really’ happy. And it’s impossible to radically critique society anymore, although what’s so radically wrong with society that we need such a radical critique, nobody can say exactly. It is so typical and perfect that you hate those ads!” she said to Chip as, throughout Wroth Hall, bells finally rang. “Here things are getting better and better for women and people of colour, and gay men and lesbians, more and more integrated and open, and all you can think about is some stupid, lame problem with signifiers and signifieds. Like, the only way you can make something bad out of an ad that’s great for women –which you have to do, because there has to be something wrong with everything- is to say it’s evil to be rich and evil to work for a corporation, and yes, I know the bell rang.” She closed her notebook.

“OK,” Chip said. “On that note, You’ve now satisfied your Cultural Studies core requirement. Have a great summer.”

He was powerless to keep the bitterness out of his voice.