goto Appendx main menu Cornel West, On Architecture?
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MC:  Absolutely.  

CW:  Gates's and Appiah's operation, with Brother Henry at the helm, is a very important journal. All of these make their contribution toward keeping alive a kind of vital conversation, so that we can understand this sense in which we're all stuck together across race, class, gender, empire, and sexual orientation understand  
the hierarchies, keep track of the scars and bruises of those hierarchies, the scars and bruises  
caused by those hierarchies, and then say, "Look, concretely, we have an answer to the question, "Can we get along?"" There's a sense in which the answer to Rodney King's question is like the conclusion of an Aristotelian syllogism—you go through the reasoning and the analysis, but the conclusion is action. Action not just in the crude sense of bodies mobilized, but action grounded in a sense of history, a sense of analysis, a sense of vision.  So there's a theoretical element to that action. Aristotle understood that, of course. But when you say action in America, it usually means "Let's go buy a keg of beer. . . you know, that flat, one-dimensional kind of thing.  

DF:  Considering the politics of "hope" and "getting along" as you�ve described them, how would you place the black church—any denomination you wish to describe, even your own—in terms of its effectiveness in dealing with mounting cultural anxieties in this country?  

CW:  I think in some ways the black church provides one of the elements that can serve as a response to it, yet in another way it provides a large number of elements that are part of the problem.  The first part would be that you have to be able to tap into and speak to not just the situation but the needs of ordinary folk, and you have to accent those institutions that have been created by those folk, which includes the stories, the narratives, the songs, rituals, and so on.  

CW: Now, as we know, those are all quite diverse. The stories are different, the interpretations of the narratives are different, the songs, the style of singing, and so forth. But you have to have some organic link—not organic link so much as a sympathetic understanding of it if you're actually going to probe deeply into the culture of ordinary folk. And therefore the black church, in its prophetic wing, will always provide a very crucial element in terms of responding to the problem of cultural anxiety, then social misery. Now that too becomes a part of the problem, because in a crisis such as ours there's a tendency to do two things, and this is true for any institution in trouble, with waning influence:  you want to freeze and become ossified and petrified and keep doing the same thing because repetition becomes a sign of vitality, even though you know that if it's repetition without responding to new circumstances, it's also a sign of decline. But you just want to repeat the past over and over again—hold onto to it, cling tenaciously to it, and we're seeing that at work. The other response is to adapt and adjust your institution to the dominant forces such that your institution will keep step with those forces. The dominant forces in our society are market forces, and so you see more and more market religion in the churches—from televangelism, black televangelists, to various Word churches, nondenominational churches that claim to be ecumenical. But what they really mean is they're reducing the richness of the gospel, like Fred Price and others. So that you really do have these two deeply reactionary responses afoot in the black church tradition right now. But I of course hold on to that "prophetic slice," one element among others that, for me, would be the beginning of a serious and substantive response to the cultural anxieties and social misery that you alluded to.  

Pervious pageThe assimilation of architectural criticism to literary criticism or the immersion of architectural objects into larger cultural practices has led in some cases to the loss of the specificity of architectural practices and architectural objects. Such a loss results in the loss of the architectural dimension of what architectural critics do. The major virtue of the French invasion is that new possibilities are unleashed, and I think that's true and that's good. The vice is that architectural critics lose their identity and focus primarily on academics—perspectives on the larger crisis of our culture, a focus that requires a deeper knowledge of history, economics, and sociology. It's unclear whether architectural critics have or care to pursue this because in order to do the kind of thing I'm calling for, you have to know a lot, you have to be involved in a variety of different discourses within different disciplines, pulling from the insights of these various disciplines. No one discipline can do it—and I keep coming back to Louis Mumford, because Mumford in some ways is not a figure to be nostalgic about, he is a figure to learn from, because he didn't have any disciplinary boundaries, he just knew a lot, which meant he worked hard. He had talent but was no genius—he had many blindnesses, but he didn't allow disciplinary boundaries to get in the way of where he had to go. And most important, he went somewhere very few literary, architectural, or cultural critics go:  he went to various traditions of social theory. It took him a while to get there, it's not in golden days, not in sticks and stones, but it is in the Pentagon of Power, it is in his reflections about the myth of machine. 

 Now none of us have the definitive understanding of this present-day crisis, though some view it better than others. My own view is that an appropriate starting point within architecture is precisely just the myth of the machine, hence Mumford becomes indispensable. And we should note of course the Miller biography published last year, the new book that the Hughes just published of the University of Pennsylvania, the definitive collection of essays on Louis Mumford. I think it warrants our attention, again, not because he is a source of panacea, but rather because his historical consciousness and his concern about historical sociology could be quite useful in terms of where we are going, especially in the United States. I think that historical consciousness means as Great Britain has taught us, that we have to be specific about the various national traditions and national heritages—not in any parochial or insolent way, because you can't understand these national traditions unless you understand other national traditions, but the specificity must be there. So you can't just talk about industrial society—what is that? I can't stand that in Habermas's work. Industrial society developed this way—which one, Jurgen? They're different, very different. It's those kinds of abstractions that I think are highly problematic—not that I'm against generalization. Yet faith in progress by means of expanding productive forces, be it the liberal or Marxist version, is a secular illusion; a myth of the machine must be questioned in many ways. This questioning must go far beyond a playful explosion of modernist formalism that heralds ornamentation and decoration of past heroic efforts. It must also be more than a defense of the anatomy of architectural discourse in the guise of its textualization, because I think in many ways that's what poststructuralism has done. It's allowed architectural critics to acknowledge the anatomy of their own work in one sense, but the way in which they understand it allows them to do it in a historical and asocial manner. There is something good about acknowledging the degree to which architectural practices are thoroughly textualized, yes, but don't stop there because that textualization is embedded in congealed practices over time and space latent in institutions, structures, agents, conditions, and circumstances. Textualization is in contradistinction to the most problematic linguistic model of the world that we know, and it seems to me that language is on the one hand a preconditioned articulation, but it in no way explains the body. 

The demystifying of the method of machine can proceed and sets apart some of the insights of poststructuralism by examining the second term in the binary opposition of machine/nature, civilized/primitive, ruled/ruler, Apollonian/Dionysian, male/female, white/black, in relation to architectural practices. I'm going to conclude by giving some examples of what I mean in a way in which the cultural politics of difference can be viewed and deeply inscribed in the contemporary history of architecture. This examination should be neither a mechanical, deconstructive operation that stays on the discursive surfaces at the expense of an analysis of structural institutional dynamics of power; nor should it result in mere "turning of the tables" that trashes the first term in the binary oppositions. Rather, what is required is a sophisticated architectural, historical inquiry into how these notions operate and the complex formulations of diverse and developing discourses and practices of actual architects and actual architectural critics. Such an inquiry presupposes precisely what much of contemporary architectural criticism shuns, which is a distinctive revisionist architecturalist historiography that sheds light on the emergence and development of the current cultural crisis as it is shaped by architectural practices. 

There is a lovely quote by Mark Jarzombek that reads as follows: 

    Architects have read too many history books and have not done enough on-location history of their own. It used to be from the Renaissance on that architects told historians what was important about a building of the past and what was not; now, it is the historians who tell architects. Once the ancient ruins had been studied and the archaeologists took over, the modernists were free to turn the same historiographic principles used by earlier generations against history itself. The postmodern historicists now use history to kill historiography. There may not be much left to talk about when the next generation of architects comes along. 
This waning of historical consciousness is holding historiography at arm's length. The major challenge then of the new architecturalist historiography is that its concept of the past and present be tuned to the complex role of difference, of nature, primitive, ruled, Dionysian, female, black, and so forth. In this sense, consider the recent talk about the death of architecture, the exhaustion of tradition, and the loss of architecture of the social force. There is a parochial nostalgic talk about a particular consensus that simply no longer exists, because the circumstances no longer exist. This consensus rested upon certain governing myths like the machine, certain narratives (primarily Eurocentric ones), certain design strategies (urban building efforts that tend to have failed), certain styles (often phallocentric monuments that no longer aesthetically convince), effectively function for us, and the us here is the diverse, heterogeneous us—not just the profession, not just architects and their critics. Next page
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