goto Appendx main menu Cornel West, On Architecture?
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CW: But when I actually sat down and went through your work, it seemed to me that you had already taken it far beyond my little cryptic remarks about Corbu and Josephine Baker and others. So I must  say, Appendx more than any other forum that I know of. I read Assemblage irregularly. But when I read it I still see a certain reluctance at times to really highlight the specificity of architectural criticism, a real sense of wanting to appropriate Foucault, Derrida, and all the fascinating figures. But to really get inside architectural history, and to tease out those silences and those blindnesses there—I haven't seen that at work. 

CW: There's this wonderful senior thesis written this year by Thia Blassingame; I was on the committee. She's the daughter of John Blassingame, the great Yale historian. It's a wonderful thesis focusing primarily on Taylor. It's more historiographical than theoretical—which is fine for undergrad—but a tremendous work done on the 1892 valedictorian of MIT, going down to Tuskegee and then looking at his work over thirty-five/forty years and then his legacy at Howard and other places. It's a kind of straight-forwardist history. It's not the kind of thing that Brother Travis does, which is a kind of interesting reportage. I think you had a review of that? Because it really tries to get at the attempt of Taylor to provide his own voice, his architectural voice within an intersecting context of the classical, neoclassical, Victorian, and what have you.   
MC:  I want to follow up on two things that you just brought up:   Assemblage and Jack Travis's African-American Architects in Current Practice. In Breaking Bread, for example, you said "We must never lose sight of what some of the silences are in the work of White theorists, especially as those silences relate to issues of class, gender, race, and empire." Given the context of the things that you refer to, what do you see as the "silences" in the works of contemporary white (and I'm speaking of white ideologically) architectural critics and theorists that we should not lose sight of? And I include black blindnesses and silences also in the work of black theorists.   
CW:  I think you have to answer that at different levels. At the level of just form, some of the things that I alluded to in my piece need serious scrutiny, examination, deepening, and refining. So when we talk about notions of human proportionality and the ways in which forms and styles have been predicated on certain models of human proportionality, we're actually talking in part about the aesthetics of the human body as well as the shape of various buildings. And when you look at black, brown, red bodies—look at their noses, their hips, their lips, and so forth. And when you look at the shapes of various buildings. . . for example, I live three months of the year in Ethiopia, which has its own distinctive architectural history—you know, they/we build homes in a certain way:  it tends to be round, almost Eskimo-like. It's circular, with its own special kind of tops, using of course their available resources and the level of technology that they have access to. Those particular shapes tend to be associated with the brutalist styles and the exotic styles and the so-called primitivist styles. And those to me are just the beginning, because those are categories that need to be analyzed and disaggregated and demystified and deconstructed, because they in part do serve as a kind of other form from classical bodies and classical noses and classical hips and classical buildings. And so at the level of just form and style, that for me is an important starting point. 

Previous page The new cultural politics of difference faces three fundamental challenges:  an intellectual challenge, an existential challenge, and a political challenge. The political challenge is, how does one attempt to create some kind of common ground to bring different persons together who are interested in engaging critique and resistance to the powers that be in the name of freedom and democracy? The existential challenge has to do with how in the world are you able to galvanize the kind of self-confidence—holding self-doubt at bay—in order to feel that you are part and parcel of the conversation that you are being invited to, usually invited by the white male elites who have had the kind of privilege that allowed them to occupy the positions they do. And these are crucial questions—how do you get the tools? Where do you get your self-confidence? Do you have to build self-cultures of criticism among yourselves in order to gain your self-confidence, such that you are part and parcel of the conversation and are taken seriously in that conversation, not paternalistically excepted or never given the benefit of being wrong. If you don't have the benefit of being wrong, then you're not being taken seriously intellectually; these are very deep existential issues that have to be talked about. 
Architecture is the embodiment, the concretization of the structures of freedom, domination, capitalism, democracy, and other institutions that have an effect on people. The less we consider architecture as an embodiment of these structures, the more these structures begin to control our discourse. The more we think of architecture as having a weakened political stance or position (or none at all), the more architecture becomes merely a representation of the invisibly controlling elements in our society that already tend to prevent our work from being able to critique the system from the inside. This, it can be said, is an eclipse of agency—or similarly, a lack of engagement from the subject, where processes at work outside of the realm of the architect are already determining the effectiveness of the work. 

In talking about cultural marginalization, some critics have conflated structure and agency, and illuminated the relation between form and content. The subject, on both sides of the peripheral fence, is an active participant in the perpetual dynamic of hide-and-seek. On the marginalized side, the subject is an agent but is banished, punished by impaired development. The discourse of the normative, ruling class both defines the perimeters while operating as an active participant within those perimeters. According to Michel Foucault, societies control discourse by positing external rules (forbidden speech, regimes of truth, priviledged access to education, secret societies, etc.). The systems, he argues, "tie down an internal system for discourse aimed at classifying, ordering, and distributing discursive materials so as to prevent the emergence of the contingent, so that no one will enter the discursive space unless certain prerequisites are satisfied and one is qualified to do so." (2)  This leads to a distributing and specializing of the speakers, and ultimately to categorization. 

What is the intellectual challenge? What does it mean to live forty-four years after the end of the age of Europe? We are still dealing with the repercussions. In 1492 and 1945, breakthroughs—oceanic transportation, industrialization, urbanization, bureaucratization, state consolidation—the shaping of a whole new world, a different kind of world, a world that did have antecedents, yes, but a world that so fundamentally shapes you and me. And yet after 1945, it's in shambles. Yet this legacy is powerful. And so we look at Matthew Arnold struggling with the crisis in the last century in which the European nations were hegemonic and the world was comprised of almost 75 percent of the land on the globe. Matthew Arnold is struggling and laying the foundations of institutions such as Harvard, in which he is able to construct a secular conception of culture in which the middle classes would become hegemonic—their interests, their perspectives become hegemonic—and holding ecclesiastical institutions at arm's length, breaking from the court, the church never far from the aristocracy but dragging the aristocracy with it as the capitalist engine, as it were, begins to reshape the world basically in a middle-class skewed project. And of course Arnold is quite explicit about this in his Culture and Anarchy, his famous text of 1869—the classic text in many ways, in which he says not simply that culture is that toward which we can reach our own perfection, but that culture is the means by which we reach safety. What an interesting formulation. What does it mean to associate culture with safety? Against whom—the barbarians, the working-class majority? Of course Culture and Anarchy was written in response to the Hyde Park riots, the working class actually violating bourgeois space, the gardens in Hyde Park—polluting it, rendering it impure. But from Arnold we then go to Eliot. Why? Because Eliot recognizes that, after August 1914, Europe is reaching its most profound crisis. He looks backward because when he looks at the present he sees wasteland, he sees fragments, he sees ruins. And the second historical coordinate given at the end of the age of Europe is the emergence of that first new nation, namely the United States, that land of hybridity of difference, the new world, as it were. And Lionel Trilling becomes very important because Trilling appropriates Matthew Arnold's project in order to allow for the entree of assimilated Jews within the antisemitic and patriarchal discourses in institutions of his day, in his case Columbia. We could tell a similar story about Harvard and what that means in terms of the emergence of the first non-white Anglo-Saxon Protestant intellectuals who move more and more to the center of the cultural stage in the United States. Bob Arnis in jazz, abstract expressionists in painting, and of course the New York intellectuals around Partisan Review and other little magazines at that time, pushing the WASP off center stage. We've struck tremendous conflict, and Trilling is in some ways the emblematic figure in this regard, in terms of his cultural alignment in light of the larger international shifts that are going on. 

 The third coordinate is of course the decolonization process, the degree to which those maritime empires of Europe began to collapse in light of anticolonial struggles. Issues of difference and marginality began to take on a level of concreticity because the very process by which these struggles are articulated is one of contrary experiences, new identities, new sense of selves, new constructed subjectivities, new forms of organization and mobilization. Yet ironically, imagine pulling from the ambiguous legacy of Europe—which is to say the things of freedom, the things of democracy, the things of equality—and using them as a basis to criticize imperialism and colonialism. What does this have to do with the new cultural politics of difference? It has much to do with the cultural politics of difference, because it means that when the turn toward history becomes inescapable and the question becomes how do we understand cultural practices and representations in a historical or historicist manner, to invoke history or to be historicists doesn't really say too much—you have to specify your particular conception of history, how you go about describing and explaining it. Which means it raises issues of methodology or approach. But most important these days, we talk about it in terms of the ideological character of history, and unfortunately the term "ideology" has been so thoroughly misunderstood and misconstrued that often people think that only those on the left have ideology, and that those in the center believe in complexity and ambiguity, and there are sophisticated versions of ideological investigations, and there are crude and vulgar versions of ideological investigations. But to think that somehow one can fully escape from certain ideological presuppositions or assumptions at work in one's project seems to me to be highly problematic. But one does have to be so critical, so conscious of one's ideology, but also honest and candid and put it on the table in terms of what kind of partisanship is in fact shot through one's own project. Next page

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