Homocene or Anthropocene?

The idea that human industrial activity has ushered in a distinctly new geological epoch – the “Anthropocene” – has gained wide currency in the arts, humanities and social sciences. According to Bruno Latour, “the Anthropocene is the most decisive philosophical, religious, anthropological and … political concept yet produced as an alternative to the very notions of ‘modern’ and ‘modernity.’”* Scientists, meanwhile, continue to gather evidence as they await an official pronouncement by the specialists with final authority on the question, the Stratigraphy Commission of London’s Geological Society.

The data considered by the Stratigraphy Commission include concrete, plastics, chemicals, airborne pollution and radiation, all of which contribute to today’s disrupted biosphere and changing climate. More significantly, from the Commission’s viewpoint, the global impact of such human waste may be visible ages from now as a clear mark in geological strata, separating the Anthropocene epoch from our recent past, the relatively mild, temperate Holocene. It is only on the basis of a clear, permanent “time-rock” stratum, akin to the notorious K-Pg boundary, that a new epoch can be said to exist. Scientific American tells us that researchers are narrowing in on a possible starting-point for the Anthropocene. At or around the year 1950, during the global postwar “great acceleration,” many anthropogenic pollutants cause a general uptick on graphs plotting their incidence rates. The most striking marker, however, is that of radioactive plutonium fallout, which is detectable worldwide and will show as “a sharp bomb spike” in the geological record. The authors of an article in Science point out that this “clear and global signature” makes its first appearance in 1951, which can therefore be taken as the start of the Anthropocene.** A look at their graph, however, shows that plutonium-239 increases rapidly in 1954 and reaches its first peak in the year 1955. If a starting point is to be chosen for the new epoch, we propose that this earliest peak may be the best candidate.

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Colin Waters et al., Science, 08 Jan 2016, Vol. 351, Issue 6269

 

Another reason we would choose 1955 from among other options is that it is the publication date of Claude Lévi-Strauss’s Tristes Tropiques. And although books are seldom viewed as geological reference-points, the Anthropocene could thereby be dated, appropriately enough, from the appearance of a landmark work of anthropology. Lévi-Strauss’s text is a far from arbitrary choice for this purpose, moreover, as it holds a position analogous to the data being considered by stratigraphers. More eloquently perhaps than any other book of its time, Tristes Tropiques testifies to a point of no return in human history: the dubious victory of advanced industrial civilization over the last vestiges of stone-age native societies. Lévi-Strauss’s globe-girdling travel memoir is a bitter farewell to the biological homeostasis of that disappearing “lost world” of the Holocene.*** In what follows, a look at the text will help us to cross-check the claims of geologists against those of anthropology, and this will allow us to judge the validity and appropriateness of the Greek prefix in the Anthropocene’s name.

Somewhat overlooked in current debates over the Anthropocene is the unique anomaly of the proposed epoch’s name among other periods of geologic time. Unlike all preceding epochs, the Anthropocene is a time-period caused by man, and the name, then, is more than a conventional designation in words of a separate, independent reality. The “Anthropocene” is a title, just as man is its author. If this is so, then we have pitched out of the abstract, impartial domain of science into the area of symbolic creation. Questions of style are not out of place here; scientific designations can be more or less accurate, but titles may be judged on aesthetic grounds. There is still time, then, before the Stratigraphy Commission rules on the matter, to suggest a better name, less clunky, not so pretentious, a fine euphonic successor to the Holocene: the Homocene.

Lévi-Strauss himself would likely have agreed that “Anthropocene” is a misnomer. The anthropologist’s work focused on so-called “primitive” peoples, the best representatives, in his view, of human groupings in their basic yet fully-fledged social forms. In contrast, modern civilization, for Lévi-Strauss, is cruel, imbalanced and self-destructive, its vaunted order bought at the cost of global ecological degradation. “The order and harmony of the Western world … demand the elimination of a prodigious mass of noxious by-products which now contaminate the globe,” Lévi-Strauss says at the outset of his book. “The first thing we see as we travel round the world is our own filth, thrown into the face of mankind” (38). Such “filth,” as we have seen, constitutes crucial data for stratigraphers, but for Lévi-Strauss, in contrast, it doesn’t count as properly human; indeed, it’s the exact negation of man’s true anthropological nature. And since so-called western “order” and “harmony” are responsible for irreparable damage to the world, Lévi-Strauss’s own work, in aspiring to a structuralist system of knowledge, must aim for a different form of harmony. Interestingly, in his evocation of “structure” (43), “pattern” and “order” (44), Lévi-Strauss makes explicit reference to geology. His thoughts and memories are compared to a “cloudy liquid … beginning to settle” (43), that is to say, as sediment that can form a rock stratum. Time thereby creates a “profound structure” in which “one order has been replaced by another” (44): an “edifice” representing the formalized creations of structural anthropology.

Sharp edges have been blunted and whole sections have collapsed: periods and places collide, are juxtaposed or are inverted, like strata displaced by the tremors on the crust of an ageing planet. Some insignificant detail belonging to the distant past may now stand out like a peak, while whole layers of my past have disappeared without trace. Events without any apparent connection, and originating from incongruous periods and places, slide one over the other and suddenly crystallize into a sort of edifice.

This reference to geology is more than a passing metaphor. Tristes Tropiques repeatedly avows its author’s “intense interest” in geology, whose study is more inspiring, he claims, than the many treks and journeys of his anthropological career. “I count among my most precious memories,” Lévi-Strauss says, “… a hike along the flank of a limestone plateau in Languedoc to determine the line of contact between strata” – a quest that represents for him “the very image of knowledge” (56). Accordingly, the author says that primitive social knowledge derives from forces “as anonymous as telluric forces” (58) and that the study of social transformations is akin to the work of paleontologists comparing different strata (112).

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In the light of these geo-anthropological claims, it is telling that Tristes Tropiques opens and closes with explicit references to atomic weapons, whose fallout may well fix the start date of the Anthropocene. The last mention in particular deserves close reading. “From the time when he first began to breathe and eat,” Lévi-Strauss says, “up to the invention of atomic and thermonuclear devices, by way of the discovery of fire – what else has man done except blithely break down billions of structures and reduce them to a state in which they are no longer capable of integration?” (413). This saturnine insight leads Lévi-Strauss to recast his anthropological work as the study of entropy. “Anthropology could with advantage be changed into ‘entropology,’ as the name of the discipline concerned with the study of the highest manifestations of this process of disintegration” (414).

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Might the “Anthropocene” be re-named, following Lévi-Strauss’s suggestion, as the “Entropocene”? The name would probably not pass muster with the scientists. More importantly, it would give too much credit to Lévi-Strauss’s grim moralizing tone and social conservatism. Geological motifs in Tristes Tropiques reflect this conservative attitude by envisioning social forms as petrified and almost immutable, the lives they harbor caught in a death grip of structure without play. There is moreover, something cynical and vainglorious in the anthropologist’s judgmental posture in Tristes Tropiques’s grand, symphonic ending, and this may be connected to some of the book’s worst failings: its contempt for the Indian subcontinent, which is only matched by Lévi-Strauss’s hatred of all things Muslim, including even India’s Mughul age – an attitude almost proto-fascist in its BJP leanings. No less revealing is Lévi-Strauss’s contempt for the lives of homosexual men on New York’s Fire Island, portrayed in quasi-Célinian strokes of revulsion as a sorry manifestation of “human absurdity” (163).

No doubt a similar negative reflex among scientists foreclosed the prefix homo- for the proposed new geological epoch. Is that why Paul Crutzen, who launched the reigning term in the year 2000, “paused to think” before exclaiming it?**** The mere suspicion is reason enough to take its defense. Homocene is plainly a more aesthetic option than “Anthropocene,” and if the name carries a connotation of sexual dissidence, so much the better: it can serve as a reminder of human freedom and the lability of desire and, in opposition to technocrats and scientists — including so-called human scientists — a standing challenge to mankind’s self-destructiveness.


*Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz, The Shock of the Anthropocene: The Earth, History and Us (Verso, 2016).

**Colin Waters et al., “The Anthropocene is functionally and stratigraphically distinct from the Holocene,” Science, 08 Jan 2016, Vol. 351, Issue 6269.

***Claude Lévi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques, John & Doreen Weightman, trans. (New York: Atheneum, 1975), 249.

****”‘No! We are no longer in the Holocene,’ Crutzen exclaimed at a scientific conference. ‘We are in’ — he paused to think — ‘the Anthropocene!'” Jan Zalasciewicz, “What Mark Will We Leave on the Planet?” Scientific American, vol 315, no. 3 (September 2016), 32.

 

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Vancouver Uncoupled

The defacement of the city provided high-cost observatories of concrete from which to observe an extraordinary landscape.

— Ferrante, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay

For thirty years the Twin Towers were dominant features of the New York skyline, unmistakable from afar, rearing up in gaps between buildings or gleaming at the end of 6th avenue at dusk. Their blunt profiles marked their place on lower Manhattan as surely as darts on a map. But because they were a pair, they positioned the viewer, too: remove all else, and their abstract, shifting forms marked your spot on the city grid by their relative positions and the shadows they cast.

If you moved, they moved. Driving south on the BQE, the space between the towers widened and narrowed and at a sharp bend in the highway they grew taller and merged; looking back at the city from Red Hook, the two towers appeared as one. Proust relates a similar kinesthetic experience at the end of Combray when he speaks of the two spires of Martinville “appearing to change position with the motion of our carriage and the windings of the road,” then, as he left them behind, seeming to “press against one another, slip behind one another, now forming … no more than a single black shape.”*

Proust’s moving steeples came to mind this month as the new Trump Tower in Vancouver approached its grand opening date. Standing on a promontory with unobstructed views of the sea and the North Shore mountains, the Trump, at 584 feet tall, is a close second to the city’s tallest building, and with its luxury rival located right across the street the two form a distinct pair on the city skyline: the Shangri-La, all glass and stabbing angles, and the Trump, vaguely organic, torqued, tubular, “a new twist on luxury,” as the ads have it.

Last December, when the presidential hopeful called for a ban on Muslims entering the US, Vancouver’s mayor asked the developers of the Trump Tower to drop the man’s offending name from the building. “Trump’s name and brand have no more place on Vancouver’s skyline than his ignorant ideas have in the modern world,” the mayor boldly declared. A city planner echoed the mayor’s concerns: “our brand,” he said, “… is almost the diametric opposite to what Mr. Trump is saying.” The city planner’s use of the word “almost” was oddly scrupulous; the audience was left to ponder what it means to “almost” oppose violent bigotry and ignorance. His conflation of “brand” and “values” was confusing too — though his stumbling grammar implied that the former, in fact, was his main concern: “our brand, our values as a city and as a country, is [sic] almost the diametric opposite…”. Even the mayor’s bold statement, on closer inspection, seems to hedge its bets: saying that Trump’s name has “no more place” in Vancouver than elsewhere fudges the simpler, plainer message that it has no place here at all.

The protests came to nothing, predictably enough, and the gold-plated name on the building will stand. Fittingly, the tower is most noticeable from Vancouver’s wealthiest neighborhoods; at sunset, looking back at the city skyline from the beachfronts or headlands of West Vancouver and Point Grey, a long bright gash of reflected light slices across the building, impossible to ignore. But there are places in Vancouver where the Trump Tower can’t offend the eye, where the viewer, like Proust with his steeples, can set one building behind the other, hiding the Trump behind the Shangri-La. In these places, maybe, Vancouver still remains one of the world’s “most beautiful cities” — second only to Paris, according to a recent Forbes rating.  For the happy few of Fairview, Cambie Village and Riley Park, it’s as if the Tower didn’t exist.

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Our tour of these neighborhoods aims south by southeast, following the cone of an umbra, to borrow the language of astronomy, the long shadow cast by an architectural eclipse.

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At 6th and Heather Streets, a four-story apartment building clad in faux-brick tarpaper is a lone reminder of the Fairview neighborhood’s industrial past. The building stands at the western edge of the cone of eclipse. From the front of the building, a narrow sliver of the Trump Tower can be seen to the left of the Shangri-La, but at the back of the building the view is more secure. The bay windows at the northeast corner look out on an alleyway, an empty lot, a defunct railroad spur, and, above the waterfront condominiums, the city skyline, topped by the blue shard of the Shangri-La.

We may have blotted the Trump tower from view, but the picture of the city from 6th and Heather speaks eloquently of Trump’s “brand”: social dishesion, gaping inequality, political cronyism and real estate profiteering. Plainly visible from here, the penthouse atop the Shangri-La was recently listed at $15 million and sold for an undisclosed amount. Meanwhile, one block away is the Olympic Village subway station, and rising above it, the neighborhood of condos bearing the same name, legacies of the 2010 winter games. Protests during the lead-up to the Vancouver games brought attention to the risks of rising rents and social displacement, and what the the protesters feared came true. The Olympic media blitz hyped Vancouver as a global tourist and luxury destination, and realtors and developers reaped a windfall: the cost of rent and real estate spiked dramatically after the games, while City Hall reneged on promises of affordable housing at Olympic Village. The apartment building at 6th and Heather is the kind of structure the City prefers to have replaced with more expensive, high-density condominium towers. But given that the vacancy rate for rentals in Vancouver now stands at 0.6 percent, and the cost of rent has increased twice as fast as incomes in the post-Olympic period, eviction from a place like 6th and Heather often means banishment from the city itself.

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Broadway Plaza, at the corner of Broadway and Ash, is a relic of the age of civic modernism. With its suspended concrete walkways and terraces, its open access from multiple levels, and a spiral staircase that affords wide views of the city and the sea, the Plaza is a kinesthetic playground and an eloquent lesson in spatial democracy. As you climb the outdoor staircase the Shangri-La stands prominently on the skyline, but from either side of the spiral the Trump remains invisible, nor can it be seen from any of the Plaza’s bridges or terraces. This beneficent eclipse seems to confirm the Plaza’s spatial ethos and midcentury optimism.

Broadway Plaza exemplifies the open urban form that has been inverted to such dramatic effect by postmodern malls and hotel atriums the world over, such as Los Angeles’ famed Bonaventure Hotel, whose bunker-like structure encloses a city in miniature within a privatized concrete microcosm. Forty years ago Fredric Jameson scorned the faux populism that masked the Bonaventure’s paranoid sociopathy.** That sociopathic attitude is now incarnated in the man Donald Trump, while the real estate magnate’s architectural populism takes the form of a spectacular edifice nominally open to all, but firmly exclusive in its higher privileges. Broadway Plaza, in contrast, seems almost quaint in its urban generosity; there is even a working public pay phone by the seating area at the foot of the spiral stairs.

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Diagonally across the busy street from Broadway Plaza stands a modest apartment building with wooden plank siding and cedar shingles painted barn red, its false roofline evocative of a western frontier town. One wouldn’t guess it, but the apartments at Broadway and Ash are a mere three blocks from Vancouver City Hall and only two blocks from the city’s all-important Office of Development and Building. Few major cities can boast such jarring contradictions, and the contrast is instructive: the gleaming global city of high-end condos, luxury mansions and Lamborghinis has arrived in Vancouver with whiplash suddenness. But history can be stubborn, too; from the upstairs windows at the corner of Broadway and Ash you can view a cityscape seemingly from the past, because the Trump Tower is nowhere in sight.

Four blocks south of Broadway houses start to appear among the larger buildings. A lone Victorian stands among a group of neglected homes on 16th avenue, a tall Douglas fir like a giant gangly weed at the property line. 16th avenue is zoned for higher-density construction, so the houses here are in real estate limbo. When the time comes, they are unlikely to be renovated or moved elsewhere. The city of Vancouver issues almost 1,000 permits every year for home demolitions, and even in neighborhoods zoned for single-family homes, an older house that changes hands is likely to fall to the bulldozer. In the absence of heritage protection, rising land values render houses increasingly disposable, a process documented with grim persistence by the authors of Vancouver Vanishes and the affiliated Facebook group. The current rate of demolitions is so high that at any given time the average residential street in Vancouver has vacant lots between the homes, holes awaiting construction, like gap teeth in a face that is repeatedly punched.

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But the Victorian on 16th has a view unmarred by the Trump Tower, as it lies securely within the cone of eclipse. In a sense the house is doubly fortunate; the view of the Shangri-La itself is obscured by the imposing form of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church across the street, and even if one climbed up to the Victorian’s peaked roof, the view of the city’s tallest building would be blocked by the church’s high golden dome. Residents living on the upper floors of an apartment building on this site may not be so lucky.

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Our itinerary crosses Cambie Street near 21st Avenue, running at an obtuse angle to Cambie’s North-South axis and tending slightly east on a long southerly diagonal across the city. Due to our eastward creep we are gradually approaching the next major North-South thoroughfare, Main Street, the traditional dividing-line between the wealthier West and poorer East sides of Metro Vancouver. But like an asymptotic line, geometry’s equivalent to frustration, our path won’t intersect with Main Street, neither will we cross it to enter East Van’s more diverse, affordable and bohemian neighborhoods. Instead, our diagonal will make a near tangent to Main before plunging into the Fraser River and leaving the city. This failure to cross Main Street seems symbolic of our quest, as the traditional East/West division, what urban planner Andy Yan calls “the $1 Million Line,” no longer exists today. Pointing to his research that maps the eastward encroachment of high real estate prices over the past 10 years, Yan says that the East-West dividing line has “utterly disappeared,” because neighborhoods of $1 million homes now extend well beyond Main Street, reaching right to the eastern boundary of the city.

Vancouverites will tell you that real estate in the city has always been expensive. Like realtors, they are quick to cite the so-called market “fundamentals,” including limited land area, temperate climate, natural beauty and political stability. But the price of housing has lately come “uncoupled” from the local economy; real estate values no longer reflect local supply and demand but are driven at the upper end by an international market of rich migrants and investors, with costly knock-on effects across the city. In this one word, “uncoupled,” lies a world of hurt for people of average or modest incomes in the Vancouver area. As a measure of the ratio of local wages to cost of housing, Vancouver is second only to Hong Kong on the world’s list of most expensive cities. This situation is neither natural nor unavoidable; favorable tax rates for offshore investment, immigration laws that favor rich migrants, lack of regulation of the real estate industry and weak heritage protections all promote the destabilizing influence of foreign money on land values. But the consensus in Canadian politics favors globalization, while Vancouver City Hall has consistently promoted developers’ and realtors’ interests. The result today is a city hollowed out from within, mansions sprouting next to modest family homes, “zombie” houses that remain empty year-round, and a climate of anxiety, suspicion and fear.

These changes are more than an inconvenience for renters and people of average incomes. The widening gap between labor wages and unearned income from property is reshaping Vancouver’s entire demographic makeup and liberal culture. The main finding of Thomas Piketty’s landmark Capital in the Twenty-First Century is precisely this kind of increasing disparity, and the economist’s prognosis is dispiriting. If current trends continue, Piketty warns, “inherited wealth will dominate wealth amassed from a lifetime’s labor by a wide margin, and the concentration of capital will attain extremely high levels – levels potentially incompatible with the meritocratic values and principles of social justice fundamental to modern democratic societies.”*** No wonder the population of young people in Vancouver is declining: millennials are leaving the city because wages saved for the future can’t keep pace with the faster rate of profit others will have gained meantime from their past investments; these young people don’t accept a situation in which, as Piketty puts it, “the past devours the future” (571). A new genre has lately emerged in the local media: the “dear John” letter to Vancouver by a young person who has decided to leave the city for good.

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A pair of houses at West 29th Avenue and Yukon Street encapsulates the quiet violence of Vancouver’s “uncoupled” economy. Next to a modest mid-century house stands a new two-storey mansion faced in limestone. The mansion’s grandiose colonnaded entryway contrasts with the simple wooden arbor by the little house’s front door, and the unassuming hospitality of the latter’s unfenced open lawn is negated by the new arrival’s granite wall, iron gate and spiked fence. The mansion appears unrelated to its surroundings, and though it flaunts its bulky materiality it seems airlifted from elsewhere, a symbol of the abstracting, delocalizing force of unfettered capital. But from the mansion and the single-storey home the city view is the same: the Shangri-La completely masks the Trump Tower from sight.

Across the street the sloping lawns of Queen Elizabeth Park rise up toward the summit of Little Mountain, one of Vancouver’s most popular viewpoints. City Hall calls the park the highest point in Vancouver, but at 500 feet above sea level it’s in fact significantly lower than the penthouse and upper-level luxury suites of the Shangri-La. This turns out to be an advantage for the visitors at Little Mountain, though: by an odd coincidence, the summit is fully within the Shangri-La’s zone of eclipse. From here the blue building in the distance seems to stand alone amid the shorter towers of downtown Vancouver.

A city without the Trump Tower: the panoramic view from Little Mountain answers the mayor’s righteous call for a ban on Trump’s name and brand from the city. But that would be to deny what the city of Vancouver amply shares with the ethos of the man Donald Trump, real estate magnate and global luxury brand. Visitors may not know it, but for older residents of the neighborhood, “Little Mountain” can’t fail to evoke the social housing development by that name, formerly located just adjacent to Queen Elizabeth Park and a stone’s throw from the viewpoint. Built in 1954, the complex of 37 buildings housed 7oo lower-income residents until the tenants were evicted and the structures razed to the ground in 2009. Last month, after years of delays and public outcry, City Hall announced the rezoning plan for the former Little Mountain site. The plan calls for a slight increase of social housing units — 282 for the original 224 — but the project, in sum, amounts to a land grab for private capital, as there will be four and a half times as many condominiums as social housing units on the property. The developer of the Little Mountain site is none other than Holborn Holdings Limited, owner of Vancouver’s Trump Tower.

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                                                                      *                                                                      2016 may turn out to be the breaking point for Vancouver real estate. Last spring home prices vaulted an additional 30% over the previous year’s sky-high values before the scandal of “shadow flipping” prompted a tightening of real estate regulations. Then, following years of stonewalling, the province and the city finally lifted their ban on the release of statistics on foreign property ownership, and in the wake of the findings the first modest reforms were made to address the affordability crisis. As of August 2nd, foreigners face a presumably discouraging 15% tax on Vancouver home purchases. But the city and the province may be playing a double game; the new tax was announced in Victoria the day before City Hall approved the developer’s plans for Little Mountain.

As you continue southward down the hill, the summit of Little Mountain rises up behind you. Holborn’s development site can be seen to the left, an L-shaped patch of bare earth awaiting construction. The sky beyond the Fraser River is often more sunny when Vancouver lies under a cloud cover. Today the southern horizon is socked in. No matter. By the time you reach the bottom of the slope the view north is totally blocked by Little Mountain, and with it, not only the offending tower, but the city of Vancouver as a whole.

 


* Marcel Proust, Swann’s Way, Lydia Davis, trans. (New York: Penguin, 2003), pp. 184, 186.

** See Fredric Jameson, “Postmodernism and Consumer Society,” in The Cultural Turn (London: Verso, 1998), 1-20.

*** Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Arthur Goldhammer, trans. (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2014), 26.

 

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Re: Place

Place is nothing other than the possibility, chance, or threat of replacement.

— Jacques Derrida

When a realtor’s sign goes up in a residential neighborhood in Vancouver, BC, the sign often reads “Lot for Sale,” as if there were no house on the property. And yet the home is plainly there, contradicting the sign that seems to want to conjure it away. The house may be attractive and habitable, a well-built ‘character home,’ but it is worthless to the prospective buyer or property developer. Land value overrides all other values; the house will be demolished and replaced with something new.

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At other times — more rarely — the house on the lot is not bulldozed but “deconstructed.” The building is stripped and gutted, lifted up in order to add square footage, or displaced to make room for an additional house on the lot. “Deconstruction” is a less violent option, but it still wholly disrupts the house and its setting. As for the built-in cabinets, the leaded glass windows, the door knobs, porcelain sinks and cast-iron fixtures, the modest evidence of the former residents’ habits and choices, they are junked or salvaged, carted away.

Deconstruction. What is the relationship between this dismantling of a home and the critical intervention known by the same name? Is it possible to intervene in a philosophical way on spiking real estate values and runaway gentrification? Can deconstruction undermine property speculation, evictions and rent profiteers?  Can deconstruction deconstruct “deconstruction”?

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Criticism and the dismantling of buildings are not unrelated, and a deconstructionist would be wrong to accuse a worker in a hard hat of abusing the philosophical term. Derrida once made this point when speaking to an audience of architects, insisting on deconstruction’s literal meaning. In so doing, however, the philosopher emphasized deconstruction’s “affirmative” nature, and as a result, the word’s meaning mutated strangely. While the primary sense of “deconstruction” clearly implies unmaking and undoing, Derrida claimed that the word refers to a creative process of rebuilding. “Between re-building and deconstruction there is no opposition, nor even any difference,” Derrida said.* The two terms, then, are equivalent and interchangeable, so you can take your choice, he claimed: “Deconstruction, or, if you like, re-building” (33).

If the two words are interchangeable, however, the negative prefix “de-” would be equivalent to the positive “re-,” and deconstruction, as a result, would equate not only with rebuilding but with reconstruction — its literal opposite. Barring sheer incoherence, how is that possible?

The key to this puzzle lies in the equivocal meanings of the prefix “re-,” which can signify either repetition, and thus a positive reiteration or addition, or else substitution, and thus a removal or usurpation. This ambiguity is captured by the word “replace,” which Derrida, insisting on the ambiguous prefix, writes as re-place. Like the word reiteration, then, a word often invoked by Derrida, re-placement destabilizes a fundamental distinction on which identity and difference is established. There is no presence and thus no identity without the repeatability of identity; but where there is repetition there is difference, and thus the undoing of presence. More concretely than this fundamental paradox of identity, re-placement however entails a literal foundation: the physical place on which anything built can stand or fall. Rather than providing a secure and solid footing, Derrida’s insight into primary substitutability considers replacement, not place, as the true ground beneath our feet, because “replacement [is] the very possibility of place.”

“Replacement … gives place to place,” Derrida asserts. “There is no placement without replacement or at least without replaceability.” Consequently, “Place is nothing other than the possibility, chance, or threat of replacement” (24). These formulations are worrying in themselves, as they undercut our confidence in space and place as stable, familiar and secure. They are also disturbing in the light of exploitative, disruptive real estate “deconstruction.” After all, if any given place is always replaced and replaceable, does this not disqualify in advance preservationist motives as nostalgic and misguided? Preservationists would be in denial of the “original replaceability” of all sites, and to militate for “non-replacement,” as Derrida puts it, would be to ignore the non-foundational “abyss” at our feet: “non-replacement is always a singular and finite response to the abyss of original replaceability, that is to say, without origin and without end.”

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“All that is solid melts into air,” Marx famously claimed of the abstracting power of capital. To anyone who has witnessed the recent transformation of Vancouver, where ordinary neighborhoods of middle-class family homes are transformed into speculative financial instruments for foreign investment, Marx’s formula certainly rings true. It would be mistaken, though, to equate high-profit “shadow flipping” with Derrida’s insight into replaceability, or to accuse his philosophy of free-market insouciance. The same can’t be said of real estate “deconstruction.”

Inheritor of Heidegger’s Destruktion, Derrida’s deconstruction takes as its primary target the delusions of metaphysical thinking. As Mark Wigley points out, those lofty metaphysical delusions are often built on architectural metaphors. One can therefore discern the same pattern of abstraction in real estate speculation — its heedless privileging of money over house and home — and philosophy’s dubious sublimating tendencies: “The edifice is constructed to make theory possible, then subordinated as a metaphor to defer to some higher, nonmaterial truth. Architecture is constructed as a material reality to liberate a supposedly higher domain.”**

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When a house is “deconstructed” it is often lifted onto blocks. The uncanny sight of a levitated home conveys both tendencies of metaphysical sublimation identified by Wigley: the liberation of value from the site-bound constraints of material reality, and the concomitant subordination of mere matter by the sublimating process. This twin process is a sacrificial economy, a violent denial of contingency and circumstance to the advantage of immutable presence and self-identical exchange value. In contrast, deconstruction exposes the play of difference that structures all identity, that de-structures any given structure, whose denial may well be profitable but is ultimately bound to failure.


* Jacques Derrida, “Faxitecture,” in Anywhere, Cynthia C. Davidson, ed. (New York: Rizzoli, 1992), 24. 

** Mark Wigley, The Architecture of Deconstruction (Cambridge, MA: 1993), 16.

 

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Frankenstein on site

Maybe … there is always another story / better unsaid, grim or flat or  predatory.

Ann Sexton

In 2011, a team of American researchers used astronomical data to solve a literary-historical puzzle: the date when Mary Shelley came up with the idea for her gothic masterpiece Frankenstein.* Cross-checking journals and autobiography against the historical phases of the Moon, the scholars were able to pinpoint not only the day but the exact hour at which the novel’s plot was hatched, 200 years ago, in the month of June, 1816.

Frankenstein is a tale of obsession, creation and responsibility, which is why the author’s introduction gives a detailed account of how it was first conceived. The story she tells has become part of the novel’s mythology: while staying in a rented house on the outskirts of Geneva, the Shelleys were regular guests of Lord Byron at Villa Diodati, in nearby Cologny. One evening Byron proposed to his guests that each of them write a ghost story. Mary cast about for a plot until an idea finally came to her in a “waking dream” following a late-night discussion at Byron’s villa some days later. Crucially, the author describes her bedroom at the moment she opened her eyes in alarm.

The idea so possessed my mind that a thrill of fear ran through me, and I wished to exchange the ghastly image of my fancy for the realities around. I see them still: the very room, the dark parquet, the closed shutters with the moonlight struggling through, and the sense I had that the glassy lake and white high Alps were beyond.**

Given the phases of the Moon during the week in question, and factoring in the 15° incline of the hillside at Montalègre, the site of the Shelley house, the authors of “The Moon and the Origins of Frankenstein” conclude that Mary could only have seen the moonlight she describes on June 16th, 1816, between the hours of 2 and 3 in the morning.

*

Frankenstein’s 200th anniversary is inspiring events and commemorations of all kinds, from the latest cinematic rehash Victor Frankenstein (“You know this story,” says the voice-over), to last May’s grandiose Royal Ballet production, to various academic conferences, including the symposium “Frankenstein’s Shadow” held in Geneva this June. As for myself, I wondered what kind of commemorations were in store for the bicentennial hour of the novel’s inspiration, at the very place and time of its creation?

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Villa Diodati, 6/16/2016, 1:36 am

On  June 15th, 2016, I boarded a plane for Geneva. My friend Géraldine met me at the airport and was keen to join in on the excursion. Late that evening storm cells moved into Geneva from the southwest, and by midnight there was lightning when we set out for Cologny. At 1 am the rain was coming down hard. Next to Villa Diodati, where a hillside park lends fine views of the city, the lake, and the Jura mountains, the usual tourists and groups of teenagers were missing. A single lighted window could be seen at the Villa, but the surrounding area was deserted.

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Rue Byron 6/16/2016, 1:45 am

Cologny today is one of the world’s most exclusive addresses, but fields and vineyards still recall its old village character. We were surprised by cows among the trees as we headed down the hill to the site of the Shelley house. A lone window was lit at the property next door. Only the lower level of the Shelley house still remains; Mary’s former bedroom would be located within the dark void described by the building’s rectangular footprint, a space in tumult now, raked by sheets of rain and buffeting wind.

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Montalègre 6/16/2016, 1:55 am

We stayed until the historic hour, intent on the returning occasion, but feeling the familiar sense of a commemoration’s fastidious uselessness. This one was more elusive than most. After all, we were marking the moment of a passing fancy that might have come to nothing; the author’s first response to her idea, she says, was to try to put it out of her mind. And yet, that moment of inspiration — including the will to erase it — was significant enough that Mary incorporated it into the novel, when Victor, strangely enough, takes a nap immediately after his creature first opens its eyes and begins to stir. This somewhat implausible sequence of events seems dictated by the author’s need to restage the scene of her inspiration at Montalègre, including the Moon at the window.

I started from my sleep with horror; a cold dew covered my forehead, my teeth chattered, and every limb became convulsed; when, by the dim and yellow light of the moon, as it forced its way through the window shutters, I beheld the wretch — the miserable monster whom I had created. He held up the curtain of the bed; and his eyes, if eyes they may be called, were fixed on me. His jaws opened, and he muttered some inarticulate sounds… (106).

The author’s memory of “the closed shutters with the moonlight struggling through” becomes in this scene a light that “forced its way through the window shutters.” Even the creature’s own account of his coming to consciousness in the amazing Chapter 11 includes descriptions of a violent, piercing light:

By degrees, I remember, a stronger light pressed upon my nerves, so that I was obliged to shut my eyes. Darkness then came over me and troubled me, but hardly had I felt this when, by opening my eyes, as I now suppose, the light poured in upon me again (148).

Few stories have had to endure as many faithless and inept adaptations as Mary Shelley’s philosophical tale. And yet, the scene of the author’s inspiration suggests that Mary herself was the first to repeat, adapt and retranslate her story, “rehashing” it, so to speak. But what story would that be?

**

In the case study of one of his most famous patients, the Wolf Man, Freud narrows in on a crucial transformative event in the patient’s life. “The date of this transformation can be stated with certainty,” Freud says, “… But the event which makes this division possible was not an external trauma, but a dream.” Citing this passage, Jean Laplanche exclaims, “What a strange history of events, in which one of the turning-points is a purely internal event!”*** Without discounting that “moments in time, situated and dated, constitute essential reference points” in a person’s life story, Laplanche’s exclamation emphasizes how mental events, understood psychoanalytically, constitute an object of inquiry quite distinct from that of historical research. “What he is aiming at,” Laplanche says of Freud’s work, “is a kind of history of the unconscious, or rather of its genesis; a history with discontinuities, in which the moments of burial and resurgence are the most important of all; a history, it might be said, of repression.”

Such a “history of repression” breaks radically with literal-minded attempts to reconstruct life-events in that the defining occurrences in a patient’s psychological history are always caught up in a dynamic process of interpretation. What the patient is compelled to interpret, or “translate,” in Laplanche’s terminology, are the formative experiences of their early life in which he or she was the receiver of strange, unbidden messages from an adult caregiver: messages that were traumatic because enigmatic, and enigmatic because sexual and deriving from the adult’s unconscious. There need not be physical abuse for such events to be traumatic, though the subject’s affective impression can be one of unwanted seduction or forced entry; as Laplanche says, the subject’s compulsive rememoration “has its origin in the forcible entry of the other and in the need to bind this forcible entry: the other (der Andere) of the enigmatic message in infancy, and then that internal ‘other thing’ (das Andere) that is the unconscious” (166).

Biographers have plenty of material in Mary Shelley’s biography with which to interpret the haunting and traumatic features of her Frankenstein. But limiting ourselves to the story’s inception, one notes an insistence on themes of violent intrusion suggestive of Laplanche’s general theory of seduction. The Moon seems to serve as metaphorical displacement of this violence, “struggling through” the shutters in Mary’s bedroom, and in the analogous scene from the novel, “forc[ing] its way through the window shutters.” The authors of “The Moon and the Origins of Frankenstein” are alert to these parallels but they do not notice that Shelley’s descriptions here combine the mental tableau of the monster’s creation with the attempt to erase that frightful picture; as she said of the moment of inspiration, she “wished to exchange the ghastly image of my fancy for the realities around.” Those “realities” are the specific details of the moonlit room at Montalègre which persist as if immune to time: many years later, the author says, “I see them still.”

To adopt a formula of John Fletcher’s, Shelley’s moonlit room is “a scene played out with all the immediacy of a present event.”**** As a “scene,” however, it is far from static; rather, following Laplanche, it includes both “genesis” and “burial,” “resurgence” and “repression,” composed as it is of troubling signs in conflict, and translated as best as the dreamer can, such as the “inarticulate sounds” muttered by the creature at Victor’s bedside, or the enigmatic meaning of his monstrous countenance as “a grin wrinkled his cheeks” (106).

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Villa Diodati 6/16/2016, 1:47 am

Frankenstein’s countless adaptations testify to the story’s rich allegorical suggestiveness and its almost unique status as touchstone of our cultural modernity. But narrative adaptations no doubt tap into what was already “translated” by the author at the outset. What drives the need to commemorate, adapt and “rehash” the story may be a compulsion to retranslate that which remains opaque in Shelley’s most stirring passages and so to return to the original place and time of her patchwork creation.


* Donald W. Olson et al., “The Moon and the Origins of Frankenstein,” Sky and Telescope, November 2011: 69-74.

** Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus (London: Penguin, 1985), 59.

*** Jean Laplanche, “Interpretation between Determinism and Hermeneutics,” in Essays on Otherness, John Fletcher, trans. (London: Routledge, 1999), 150.

**** John Fletcher, Freud and the Scene of Trauma (New York: Fordham, 2013).

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Reading in the End Times

With the closing of Berkeley’s Shakespeare & Co. last year, Moe’s is now the only bookstore on a block that once housed no less than four independent booksellers. Moe’s had an advantage over its competitors: the store’s sheer volume — four floors of books — and a winning mix of new and used stock, the latter getting regular infusions from the city’s famously smart and eclectic readers. The bookstore may have cornered the market on Telegraph Avenue, but lately the shelves look sparse in places. This is noticeable in the Critical Theory section, an institution in its own right on Berkeley’s intellectual scene.

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Over the years the Critical Theory section at Moe’s has housed some of the most forward trends in contemporary thought, from Deconstruction to New Historicism, from Lacanian psychoanalysis to Queer Theory, and from Marxism to Postcolonialism and Critical Race Studies. Berkeley’s own stellar faculty and graduates have been well represented in this section, which is located in a prime spot near the store entrance. On a recent visit, though, I noted what seems a strange emerging trend.

French theorists have always played a major role in critical theory, and there are two noteworthy volumes from France currently on display: Happiness: A Philosopher’s Guide (Frédéric Lenoir), and A Philosophy of Walking (Frédéric Gros). There is also a French-themed volume titled How to Live (Sarah Bakewell) — which, taken with the somewhat pedestrian titles of Frédéric & Frédéric, suggests Critical Theory is being replaced by Inspiration & Self-Improvement. To be fair, How to Live is a biography of Michel de Montaigne. And yet, other titles suggest a general critical tendency toward — how to put it — coping?

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There are quite a few books here about the pace of life and the lack of time: the glumly-titled Too Much to Know (Ann M. Blair) and Pressed for Time (Judy Wajcman); Mark C. Taylor, no stranger to these shelves, has a new book titled Speed Limits: Where Time Went and Why We Have So Little Left. The latest addition to this time-pressed category is The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy (2016), by Maggie Berg and Barbara Seeber. Berg and Seeber’s manifesto intends to mount a “challenge” and so it can’t rightly be called a book on coping. But maybe the word takes on new meaningWP_20150816_16_47_55_Pro in desperate times, as it shades into adaptingenduring or even just surviving. Slavoj Zizek captures this terminal self-help ethos with his unsurpassably dismal title, self-help to end all self-help, Living in the End Times.

The end of Critical Theory? Or alternately, a melding of Criticism with Self-Help? At least one bookstore suggests such a future for Critical Theory. At Pulp Fiction books in Vancouver, Self-Help is directly adjacent to Literary Criticism. The results are oddly enlightening: one can consult in the same convenient space Lost Angels of a Ruined Paradise together with The Happiness Project, or The Poet as Mirror with How to Rock Your Body Image, or Discovering Ourselves in Whitman with The Psychopath Test.

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Maybe it seems a bit instrumental to match up poetry’s soul-searching with “how to” advice. But some of the loftiest names in literary criticism have signed books with how to titles. Stanley Fish has a double-barreled How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One, while Harold Bloom has How to Read and Why as well as a raft of How to Write About books (on Melville, Emerson, Wilde, Hemingway, Langston Hughes, Amy Tan…). And one of the most clever and engaging books in literary criticism to have come out in recent years is Pierre Bayard’s How to Talk about Books You Haven’t Read — a perennial reference at The Purgatory Press.

I left Moe’s wondering how long the store would be able to hang on in a difficult bookseller’s market. On my way out, I noticed a young woman seated sideways in a big comfortable armchair by the Critical Theory section, one leg propped on the arm of the chair. A flip-flop dangled idly from her foot. She was absorbed in Pico Iyer’s The Art of Stillness, which, it seemed to me, could have been titled How to be Still.

 

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Begging questions

Does someone approaching the cash register beg the question, “Did you find everything OK?” Does a diner in a restaurant beg the question, “How is everything tasting?” And if there are two diners, does the second one beg the question, “… and yourself?”

The answer is no, and not only because the expressions are as misguided as they are ubiquitous. Yourself is a needless overcorrection of the more usual pronoun, probably because you is thought to be too crude or invasive, not suitably deferential. But then why the strange locution How is everything tasting?, which undoes what the word yourself attempted, the phrase invading your personal space, practically intruding on your tongue, getting all up in your grill. As for Did you find everything OK?, the phrase might be credited for its use of syllepsis, the word “find” doing double duty, referring both to the act of locating something and the abstract idea of an impression or feeling. But maybe in places of overwork and undercompensation words just have to work twice as hard?

In any case, nothing “begs the question” this way. The phrase, in fact, has become one of the sorriest misuses to have recently climbed from grammatical purgatory to common acceptance. How better to gauge this verbal ascension than to scan our most respected cultural publications? When this writer first noted the expression “begging question” in a recent issue of the New Yorker, it seemed the magazine was hedging its bets, acknowledging the creeping legitimacy of the phrase but balking at its replication. In last month’s March 28 issue, however, the phrase achieves a kind of grammatical consecration. This happens in the “Shouts and Murmurs” column, on page 33, and the text is signed Suzanna Wolff. The column’s premise that week is the satirical description of a number of humorously bad wireless internet plans, with absurd names ranging from the “TV-Buff-Infuriating Buffer Plan” to the “Thrill-Seeker Triple-Refresh Bundle.” One especially frustrating wi-fi service is mockingly touted as follows: “Get away from it all with this Internet connection, which begs the question, “Do I actually need to be in contact with the outside world?”

Maybe the author’s satire justifies the misuse of the expression. But the offending phrase isn’t attributed to the service providers she mocks, it belongs to the language of the satirist herself. A margin of uncertainty remains, though, as in the elusive narrative voice of Flaubert’s style indirect libre. Who’s speaking here? The author from a lofty arbiter of culture? Or a hapless anybody, their vernacular snarky and cynical?

A recent story in The Guardian makes the case that grammar prescriptivists wage war on the language of the underprivileged, and that the conventions they defend are often “unimportant.” The phrase “begging the question,” however, is hardly insignificant. It means that a speaker’s argument includes a premise that assumes the conclusion. The “question” at stake in the phrase is that questionable assumption; a person “begs the question” when they have overlooked or tried to hide a false premise through circular reasoning or sheer deviousness.

No doubt this fine point of forensics is lost in the headlong forward rush of news coverage and social media commentary. Who has time to look back and reconsider their question begging, their prejudices and false assumptions, the historical legacy of unpaid debts and unmourned lives? In contemporary politics, there’s no looking back, which seems why even in the rhetoric of nostalgia, America’s so-called former greatness isn’t asserted in substantive claims but instead by piling query upon query, not so as to substantiate a claim, but as if, to use the current parlance, we were begging those questions: “When was the last time anybody saw us beating, let’s say, China in a trade deal? … When did we beat Japan at anything? They send their cars over by the millions, and what do we do? When was the last time you saw a Chevrolet in Tokyo?” (Donald Trump, Tuesday, June 16, 2015).

 

 

 

 

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Anonymous doctored text, unearthed at MacLeod’s Books, Vancouver, BC

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