goto Appendx main menu Cornel West, On Architecture?
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Cornel West 

Milton S. F. Curry and 
Darell W. Fields 

MC: Let me take you back to the Fall of 1991. At that time, in the midst of what you called an “intellectual crisis in architectural criticism,” you showed up at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. What was going through your mind? What were you thinking, as you sat there ready to address students and faculty at that particular moment in time? 
CW: You see, I had come from a conference that we had back in 1988 or ‘89 that was held in Chicago at one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s spots—I forget the name of it now—where we were talking about what it means to create an oppositional architectural criticism. 

CW: And that’s when I really began to read a lot [about architecture], from Summerson to Frampton to. . . I even went back and read old Siegfried’s piece, the huge history of architecture, I forget what—Space Time and Architecture, something like that. I tried to read all the texts I could in order to write a short piece. And so for three days it was rather intense and I learned a lot, even though I was still very much a neophyte. Then I put that paper away and had dialogue with Vidler and Colquhoun and especially Michael Hays, who was here at Princeton. And so when I went back to Harvard, I was thinking, “Well, I haven’t read the stuff in a while”—it was about a two-year gap or so. I had only read Assemblage and some stuff by Mark Wigley here and some graduate students in architecture. So I was wondering exactly where architectural criticism was at that time. What kind of new interventions had actually taken place since ‘89–’90? And when Michael Hays invited me up, I think he was relatively new; I think he had just left Princeton a year or two before. I was wondering to what degree what I would have to say—trying to set a larger context, but also saying something about the specificity of architectural criticism. I didn’t want to give a piece on cultural criticism in the abstract or just the larger historical context without trying to highlight the particular functions of an architectural critic who is concerned with engagement with the larger cultural/historical issues, with the larger cultural critical forms. And so that’s what I was really trying to get at in the piece, and that’s what was on my mind as I stepped up to the podium. 

MC: You brought up some interesting critical points in that essay. Some of our readers may not know this, but you regularly lecture on architecture at schools all over the country. I know that you’ve also been to several places in Canada. In speaking to such a broad audience in your travels, do you see anyone out there responding to your call for new cultural practices to find their way into architectural discourse? And if so, who is responding to that and what are they doing? 
CW: Really, in all honesty, when I read through your Appendx number one, volume one—that to me was the most significant response. I don’t really read architectural critical papers in the variety of periodicals regularly; therefore there might be some persons out there whom I’ve simply overlooked.

I would first like to say a word about what the “new politics of difference” actually means. You hear these terms “difference,” “marginality,” “otherness,” and “subalterity” invoked all the time, but rarely do you get definitions. What are the claims being made here? I’d like to say something about the new politics of difference and discuss the implications for cultural practices—and specifically, architectural practices. 

If there are some underlying themes in what I’m talking about, they are, first, that we have reached the point at which theory tends more and more to be a fetish, where it is not only blinding in terms of our descriptive and explanatory claims, but actually paralyzing as well. Theory is often justified by sophisticated ironic consciousness through which we can undermine each other’s positions (and even our own), but never take a stand or make claims of any validity. We can tell a story about why that becomes acute in the last fifteen years at this particular moment among the professional managerial strata in advanced capitalist American society. 

The second theme is the degree to which the new historicism is involved in invoking history in the name of a historical way of looking at the past and present. One symptom of this is the relative refusal of cultural critics to examine the present moment, the present as history, and then tell stories about why it is that certain ideas become hegemonic. What is the role and function of these ideas, these perspectives, these visions, these orientations? I submit that one of the reasons I spend so much time reading the Matthew Arnolds and the T. S. Eliots and the Frantz Fanons and the Lionel Trillings is not because I necessarily agree with these figures, but because they understood their selves making an intervention in the public conversation within the society in which they resided at that moment. When Lionel Trilling talked about the liberal imagination, you knew he was battling the Stalinists, you knew he was battling the new critics, you knew he was making an intervention and was conscious of who the opponents were, understood their arguments, and therefore was able to put forward his argument in a much more sophisticated manner—even though he is flat-footed theoretically (which is to say that he is not a theorist at all, given the criteria of theory these days). But I want to begin first by saying a word about this new cultural politics of difference, move to the four major modes of historicist reflection, and then target the prevailing crisis in architectural criticism (and there I’m talking of architectural critics who highlight the specificity of their discipline and don’t get lost in the vague dialogue about antiskepticism and foundationalism and antifoundationalism and so forth). 

In the last few years of the twentieth century a significant shift in the sensibilities and outlooks of critics and artists is emerging; in fact, I would go as far as to claim that a new kind of cultural worker is in the making, associated with a new politics of difference. These new forms of intellectual consciousness advance reconceptions of the vocation of critic and artist. And note I use the term vocation, from the old Lutheranite understanding of calling, not profession. We can talk about vocation versus profession later in our reflections (this is not to say that we can escape professionalism, but that vocation has a very different weight and gravity—both intellectual, existential, and political—than profession does). This vocation of critic and artist entails attempting to undermine the prevailing disciplinary division of labor in the academy, museum, mass media, and gallery networks, while preserving modes of critique within the ubiquitous commodification of culture in the global village. The distinctive features of the new cultural politics of difference are the trashing of the monolithic and homogeneous in the name of diversity, multiplicity, and heterogeneity; and the rejection of the abstract as universal in light of the concrete, the specific, and the particular. To historicize, to contextualize, and to pluralize by highlighting the contingent, provisional, variable, tentative, shifting, and changing is to say, “I’m on the cutting edge of things.” That’s not necessarily either good or bad, but the trashing, the rejection, and the undermining, the obsession with contextualizing, pluralizing, and historicizing, is to be “on the cutting edge.” Needless to say, these gestures are not new in the history of criticism and art—go back to Hurder in the eighteenth century, about whom Berlin has written so brilliantly. Yet what makes this novel, along with the cultural politics, is how and what constitutes “different.” The weight it is given in representation and the way in which highlighting issues like exterminism, empire, class, race, gender, sexual orientation, age, nation—and in this country of course, region—is so very important. But these issues are all candidates of difference, otherness, and marginality, acknowledging some discontinuity and disruption from previous forms of cultural critique owing more to the moment than to the gesture per se. 

The new cultural politics of difference consists of creative responses to the new circumstances of our present moment, especially those of marginalized first-world agents who shun degraded self-representations, claims of inferiority, attacks on one’s beauty, one’s intelligence, one’s moral capacity—be they racist, antisemitic, homophobic, or nationalist—articulating instead the sense of the flow of history in light of contemporary terror. And I use this word terror quite explicitly, because as you know we live in such a ghastly century, one of the most terrible centuries in the history of the world in terms of the scope of terror. And when it surfaces, it tends to radically frighten those who have been occupying bourgeois space. Another way of putting it is: drop most of us off in Roxbury, right now—frightening! What is everyday life? It’s terror! To drop us off in Romania a year and a half ago—terror! Siberia even now—terror! And we have to deal with this terror, which we see articulated more and more, and of course when it’s collectified and mobilized and galvanized and energized, it becomes even more frightening. But those who differ try to articulate a response to these contemporary terrors and terrorisms, as it were, along with the anxieties and fears in highly commercialized North Atlantic capitalist cultures where they’re escalating and fueling phobias against people of color, Jews, women, gays, lesbians, and the elderly. For example, the level of violence against these people is really unspeakable at the moment— every fourteen seconds a woman is attacked. But not just the first world, but also the third world against the rigid second world ex-communist culture, with increasing nationalist revolts against the legacy of hegemonic party henchmen. Last but not least, the diverse cultures of the majority of inhabitants on the globe were smothered by international communication cartels, often regimented and repressed by postcolonial elites in the name of communism, as in Ethiopia, or starved by austere World Bank and IMF policies that subordinate them to the North in the name of free-market capitalism, as in Chile. These spheres are crucial areas of analysis for this new cultural terrain, and I’m sure many of you will be involved in building buildings and shaping space within these very new places. 

The new cultural politics of difference are not simply oppositional in contesting the mainstream (or malestream) for inclusion; it’s not an assimilation project or an integration project, nor is it transgressive in the earlier twentieth-century avant-gardist sense of shocking conventional bourgeois audiences. Rather, they are distinct articulations of talented and usually privileged contributors to culture who desire to align themselves with demoralized, demobilized, depoliticized, and disorganized people in order to embody and enable social action, and if possible to enlist collective insurgency for the expansion of freedom, democracy, and individuality. This perspective impels these cultural critics and artists to reveal, as an intricate component of their production, the very operations of power within their immediate work context. The operations of power in the context in which one finds oneself becomes itself an object of investigation. Foucault and others have made this point. But the crucial point here is that you don’t have to be a Foucaultian to constitute operations of power as an object of investigation, and this is true in the academy and museum and gallery and mass media and so forth.Next page 

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