goto Appendx main menu Cornel West, On Architecture?
text | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7
CW: Then, though, beyond form and style we also have to look at space, and where these various buildings are put and their relation to the way in which black and brown bodies are contained in other spaces; or the relation between the spaces where black and brown bodies are vis-à-vis spaces where architectural edifices are put. Then, of course, there's the level of just sheer labor—of who's building the darn things? And that has to do with a certain kind of social history  that I allude to at the very end of the piece on "Race and Architecture." Then there's the nitty-gritty business of the relation to the monied classes and the propertied classes and the ruling elites of the day. How do racial ideologies circulate among those elites as they deal with the architects who must gain some access to their resources to build these buildings? That seems to be much more far-fetched than the other three, but my hunch is that if you push that far enough there still might be some highly mediated links. I don't know—these are all very open-ended hypotheses, you know what I mean?  They're very vague formulations as to these lines of inquiry.   

MC:  In putting these issues in a larger context,  issues of elitism come up. And, according to some, we are in the midst of a "cultural   
war." If that's the case, from your perspective, who are the players? Who are the warriors, so to speak? And what is the score in that war? And if we are not in the midst of a cultural war, then how do you account for the ferocious attacks being waged in academic, political, and media outlets by media elites, industrial elites, academic elites, and others?   

CW:  I'm not sure whether war is the right word. I like to reserve war for when people are really engaged in military combat. A brother was saying, "I'm at war with my wife." I say, "Well, I hope not. Have [you got] your tanks out?"   
But no, I mean war for me really is Clauswitzian, you know what I mean? We're really talking about the mobilization of brutality and violence. But  that metaphor itself, "kulturkampf," is something else—a kind of cultural conflict, a cultural combativeness taking place. I would certainly go with that metaphor, that's very much where we are now. We're in the midst of tremendous cultural contestation and cultural combat, and it has much to do with the fact that the legacy of the 1960s has driven conservatives and reactionaries against the wall, because the disclosure of facts and the revealing of certain "truths" about the past and the social forces that have forced us to reshape not just how we understand that past, but how we go about arranging our institutions under professional ideologies of pluralism— which are suspect—but I mean ways of justifying the new arrangement of our universities and collleges and sometimes even high schools and on down to elementary school. The conservatives and the reactionaries   
are very upset about this. They want to go back to what they perceive to be the halcyon days of the fifties when there was all of the snobbish gentility and tribal civility that mediated the very low level of conflict.   

MC:  So they want to continue to define the terms?   

CW:  That's exactly right! 

Previous Page Four basic historicist forms of theoretical activity provide resources for how we understand, analyze, and enact our representational practices. First is Heideggerian destruction of the Western metaphysical tradition; second is Derridian deconstruction of the Western philosophical tradition; third is Rortyan demythologization of the Western intellectual tradition, and last is demystification. Demystification can take a form—Marxist, Foucaultian, feminist, antiracist, antihomophobic. But demystification is very different from destruction, different from deconstruction, different from demythologization, and I think that these distinctions must be made even though we can learn much from each. Despite his abominable association with the Nazis, Martin Heidegger's project is useful in that it discloses a suppression of temporality and historicity in the dominant metaphysical systems of the West. This is noteworthy in that it forces one to understand philosophy's representational discourses as thoroughly historical phenomena—hence they should be viewed with skepticism as they are often flights from the specific, concrete, practical, and particular. The major problem with Heidegger's project, noted by his neo-Marxist student Herbert Marcuse, is that he views history in terms of fate, heritage, and destiny. Of course those are three fundamental categories. He dramatizes the past and present as if it were a Greek tragedy, thereby providing us with no tools of social analysis to relate cultural work to institutions and structures, nor any tools to relate prevailing forms and styles to antecedent ones. So on the one hand Heidegger is quite useful because he is part of the historicist's turn. The crucial part of the historicist's turn is of course that very rich footnote to Heidegger, namely Hans. G. Gadamer, who I am told is still teaching at Boston College. But note too the social analysis, both at the level of forms and styles, but not at the level of course of struc- tured institutions. Jacques Derrida's version of deconstruction is one of the most influential schools of thought among young academic critics. This version is solitary in that it focuses on the political power of rhetorical operations of tropes and metaphors and binary oppositions like white/black, good/bad, male/female, machine/nature, ruler/ruled, reality/appearance, showing how these operations sustain hierarchical world views by devaluing the second term as something subsumed under the first. Most of the controversy about Derrida's project revolves around this austere epistemic doubt that  unsettles binary oppositions while undermining any determinate meaning of a text, be that text a book, an art object, a performance, or a building. Yet his views about skepticism are no more alarming than those of David Hume. In fact, I actually prefer David Hume to Jacques Derrida in terms of the rigor of skepticism—or, Ludwig Wittgenstein or Stanley Cavell. It's just that Derrida revels in his skepticism for transgressive purposes. In this sense he is a transgressive modernist, not in any way a postmodernist; his skepticism sustaining his radical undermining of any position, whereas others provide us with ways that dissolve, sidestep, or cope with skepticism. None, however, slide down the slippery crypto-Nietzschian slope of relativism as alleged by old-style humanists, be they Platonists like Allan Bloom or Arnoldians like M. H. Abrahms. 

The major shortcoming of Derrida's project is that it puts a premium on a sophisticated ironic consciousness that tends to preclude and foreclose analyses that guide action with purpose. And, given Derrida's own status as Algerian born—which is to say not only African but colonial subject—he is a Jewish figure in a deeply anti-Jewish moment in the 1940s, with the subsumption of Algeria under an antisemitic French regime; as a Jewish leftist he is marginalized to this very day by a hostile French academic establishment. But the sense of political impotence and hesitance regarding the lack of moral action is understandable in light of his own social position, and at this point I am actually making a kind of gesture toward a crude social analogy. I think a dose of crudity is quite helpful at times. You have to give an argument for it and we can engage in that, but his social positioning is something that one must in fact not lose sight of even though it's not the only criterion that can be appealed to in trying to discern why he thinks the way he does. His works and those of his followers too often become rather monotonous, johnny-one-note rhetorical readings and disassembled texts with little attention to the effects and consequences these dismantlings have in relation to operations and military, economic, and social powers. And I'll say a word about how this is reflected in Eisenman's attempt to build up on his deconstructive legacy in architecture. So again, there is something positive about Derrida's project, and something negative. 

 Richard Rorty's neopragmatic project of demythologization is insightful in that it provides descriptive mappings of detransient metaphors, especially the ocular and specular ones that regulate some of the fundamental dynamics in the construction of self-descriptions dominant in highbrow European/American philosophy. His perspective is intrusive because it discloses a crucial role of narrative as the background for rational exchange and critical conversation. Rorty shows us why we should speak not of "History," but "histories"; not of "Reason," not of textbook versions of enlightenment, textbook versions of the rise of the modern, nor abstraction, but rather of historically constituted forms of rationality and different styles of rationality and how they become institutionalized over time—be it by the Royal Academy in London or the Royal Academy in Paris—and how struggles to have its style of rationality become more and more dominant and even to become downright narrow and claim that its style has a monopoly on the "Real," the "Truth," "Criticism," or "Art," but rather of socially constructed notions of criticism and art linked but not reducible to political purposes, material interests, and cultural prejudices. 

Rorty's project nonetheless leaves us wanting, owing to its distrust of social analytical explanation similar to the dazzling new criticism of Steven Greenblatt and Catherine Gallagher and others. Rorty's project gives us mappings and descriptions with no explanatory accounts for change and conflict. In this way, it gives us an aestheticized version of historicism, in which the provisional and the variable are celebrated, but celebrated at the expense of who gains and who loses and who bears the cost. 

Demystification, I want to suggest, is the most illuminating theoretical inquiry for those who promote the new cultural politics of difference. Social structure analyses of empires, exterminism, class, race, gender, nature, age, sexual orientation, nation, and region are springboards (though not landing grounds) for the most desirable forms of critical practice that take history and her story seriously. Demystification tries to keep track of the complex dynamics of institutional and other related power structures in order to disclose options and alternatives for transformative practice. It also attempts to grasp the way in which representational strategies are creative responses to novel circumstances and conditions. In this case the crucial role of human agency, an agency always enacting a circumstance that is not of one's own choosing—be it the critic, the artist, or the audience as cynic. Next page

text | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7
appendx inc.©1997