Reading the Neoliberal University

In the 1998 film Dark City, a race of aliens in human form control a noir metropolis where the sun never rises. The minds of the city dwellers are constantly manipulated, like the cityscape itself, which is rearranged as they sleep. “The rich get richer,” says the sinister Dr. Schreber, as he injects a sleeping couple with a memory-altering drug; meanwhile, the aliens, pursuing their lab-rat studies of human behavior, quickly transform the couple’s modest tenement: the building morphs, bulges, and changes into a vast luxury home.

Dark City provides a startling vision of urban spaces molded at will. Buildings rise out of nowhere, twisting and groaning into a crowded sky; in one chase scene, the protagonist scales an accordion-like staircase that pulls up and away from him, a shot that cites the dizzying dolly zoom from Vertigo. But the use of Hitchcock’s psychic motif to convey a literal warping of space points to Dark City’s major weakness, what we might call a puppet-master theory of power and politics. Even when the hero defeats the aliens, using their power to “tune” the cityscape, the film promotes the idea that politics is the emanation of power from a single controlling source. Convenient as if may be to think so, politically and plot-wise, something as complex as a modern city can hardly be the plaything of a central malevolent force.

Or so we used to think. In today’s financialized, securitized, hypercapitalist cities, something akin to Dark City’s nightmare vision is taking place. Power is more centralized and money more concentrated in a global oligarchic ruling class. Democracy itself, that old urban invention, is in retreat everywhere, and Foucault’s idea of “micropolitics” seems to lose much of its relevance. New, cruder forms of brutality and demographic control speak to a reversion from the complex modalities of foucaultian discipline to the heavy hand of sovereign punishment. Saskia Sassen, the sociologist and urban studies scholar, has suggested that this mutation in the field of politics is most visible in those places where power is most highly centralized, the world’s global centers.

Historically, the oppressed have often risen against their masters. But today the oppressed have mostly been expelled and survive at great distance from their oppressors. Further, the “oppressor” is increasingly a complex system that combines persons, networks, and machines with no obvious center. And yet there are sites where it all comes together, where power becomes concrete and can be engaged, and where the oppressed are part of the social infrastructure for power. Global cities are one such site.*

With its evictions, rising rents, luxury developments and skyrocketing land values, Vancouver, British Columbia exemplifies Sassen’s diagnosis of the contemporary “global city.” And at this Pacific Rim city’s westernmost edge a satellite metropolis is fast emerging at the University of British Columbia. UBC has witnessed a breakneck pace of construction in the past five years; more than a dozen new buildings have been completed in that time along with a half-dozen major renovations and a university-wide landscaping project that has reshaped gardens, plazas, walkways and transit stations throughout the campus core. The sky above UBC bristles with construction cranes; at mud level students and faculty run mazes between building sites and excavations that seem to appear overnight. Meanwhile, apartment and condominium towers rise from the forest on the edge of campus, and adverts at Wesbrook Village promise that “Everyone can live at UBC.” A disturbing thought – surely they mean “anyone”? But the slip is telling, as the University’s growth ambitions seem to have no limit.

Approaching Vancouver’s UBC campus via University Boulevard, visitors are greeted by eight-foot block letters spelling the school’s initials in gleaming stainless steel, a logo more suggestive of a business park than a public university. These three letters pose our first interpretive challenge as we visit the campus. How to read them? The sign turns each letter into an imposing object, while at the same time evacuating all interiority in a play of surface reflections. Both vacuous and brash, the sign achieves a kind of linguistic aphonia characteristic of UBC’s marketing language and managerial speak.

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In 2015, UBC announced it would raise international student tuition by a whopping 37%. Six years earlier, in the midst of a budget crisis, UC President Mark Yudof proposed a similarly draconian 32% tuition hike for local California students. Yudof justified his move with the notorious statement that “the shine is off” public education. Does UBC’s gleaming logo mean to suggest otherwise? Or does it, rather, confirm what happens to public universities when student fees are increased? The case of UBC’s southern neighbors is instructive: with rising tuition, the core principles of access and affordability are undermined, and along with them the democratic premise of the “public” university; students, indentured to loans or obliged to work their way through school, are forced to view their education as vocational training; the drift away from state financial support and the taxpaying public separates the school from social accountability; and the use of private funding imposes market logic on the school’s priorities and operations. The university is privatized; it becomes a transnational corporation.

The UBC sign’s outsize dimensions suggest that without such a brash announcement, one might otherwise doubt that one had arrived at the school. And there would be reason to wonder. The school’s corporatization has spawned drastic changes in its look. Until recently, a landmark building stood at this corner: the imposing General Administration Building, whose mid-century concrete Brutalist aesthetic ultimately fell afoul of the University’s glossy new rebranding campaign. An empty lot occupies the site today.

The demolition of the Brutalist-style General Administration Building can be taken as a symbol of the reshaping of public education under neoliberalism. In spite of the word’s negative connotations, Brutalism denotes frankness and honesty in construction, an architectural ethos embodied by raw, exposed concrete. Moreover, the material’s solidity speaks to the will to long-term investment in social infrastructure commonly seen in mid-century government buildings, social welfare projects and public universities. In contrast to Brutalism’s solidity and permanence, new buildings on the UBC campus are characterized by expansive glass walls. Planning documents speak of “emphasizing transparency (e.g. glass) on the ground floors to project a sense of lightness, welcome and optimism,” thereby “allowing interior academic uses to be visible.” This last directive is vaguely unsettling, as if the primary function of classroom activities was to advertise education to passersby and window shoppers. And indeed, UBC’s new design priorities suggest a general market-oriented transformation of the academic landscape, from slogans and logos to large-scale campus building projects.

This marketing ethos is evident in the rental apartments under construction next to the Administration Building’s rubble. The building is soon to house a range of businesses and restaurants at street level, and as a result, when one passes the UBC sign to enter campus one will run a gauntlet of commerce and entertainment along the last leg of University Boulevard. A “key gateway” to campus, in the administration’s language, and leading directly to what maps designate as the “campus core,” the remodeled University Boulevard is a clear signal of the school’s privatizing trend. And though we are still on the edge of the university, the name of the new apartment building, “Centre,” performs a verbal reorientation of the campus itself. We might say of “Centre” what Jean Baudrillard disparagingly said of the Beaubourg in Paris, that its “fragility” and “world’s fair” aesthetic “overtly proclaims that our time will never again be that of duration, that our only temporality is that of the accelerated cycle and of recycling.”** Ironically, this very denial of permanence can serve to promote the University’s brand when hitched to the school’s “zero-waste” ambitions; at Brock Commons, next to a venerable cluster of mid-century Brutalist dorms, a new dormitory building is nearing completion. UBC proudly bills it as the world’s tallest wooden building.

(End of part 1; to be continued)


*Saskia Sassen, Expulsions, 11.

**Jean Baudrillard, “The Beaubourg Effect,” 61.

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In Bed with the Donald

Two days after this year’s US presidential election, Teju Cole signed an op-ed piece in the New York Times that drew parallels between Eugène Ionesco’s Rhinoceros and the rise of Donald Trump. Ionesco’s play, inspired by the author’s own experience of fascism in his native Romania, suggests that political upheavals can be as baffling, disorienting and unexpected as his absurd premise, in which an epidemic of “rhinoceritis” transforms rational human individuals into mindless, violent herd animals.

Chauvet cave, Ardèche, France / Photo: Claude Valette

Chauvet cave, Ardèche, France / Photo: Claude Valette

Cole’s essay struck a chord echoed by other post-election commentators. An exasperated Tabatha Southey bitterly mocked journalistic “safaris” into Trumpland that sought to “humanize” Trump’s electorate. No, Southey countered, there was nothing more to “understand” about a Trump supporter than their tendency to violent anger, racism and misogyny. In a broader assessment of global politics in this new “age of anger,” Pankaj Mishra argued that “liberal rationalism” is under grave threat from such figures as Trump, who “strut across a bewilderingly expanded theatre of political absurdism.”

As theater directors confront the “political absurdism” of our present conjuncture, we may expect a general revival of Rhinoceros on the stage. Another Ionesco play, however, captures an equally significant aspect of the Trump phenomenon: the tendency to misrecognize one’s neighbors and, in the process, to misapprehend oneself. We can cite in this regard the failed assessment of the Republican candidate by the mainstream media, who all but wrote off his chances of winning, and the enduring confusion about the demographic identity of Trump’s supporters. In the election’s aftermath, commentators scrambled to put a face to this electorate, which many identified as an angry and disillusioned working class. Subsequently, the theory of a working-class backlash was roundly discredited, and as more complete polling data came in Trump’s electors began to look like a broad cross-section of the US population. To put it in tweet form, we were all in bed with the Donald.

In The Bald Soprano, a married couple arrives at the house of Mr. and Mrs. Smith and the two are shown in by the maid. Strangely, however, as the husband and wife wait for their hosts, they can’t recall where they have met before. The two soon establish a series of increasingly absurd “coincidences”: they are both originally from Manchester, and each traveled to London not only on the same train but in the very same compartment, and in facing seats. Next, they learn that they both reside on the same street in London, and in an incremental process of careful cross-verifications, each provoking the same outbursts of surprise and amazement, they determine that both of them live in the same building, on the same floor, in the same apartment, and sleep in an identical bed “covered with a green eiderdown.” “How curious it is and what a coincidence!” says the lady of these last details. “It is indeed possible that we have met there, and perhaps even last night. But I do not recall it, dear sir!”*

The couple finally discovers that they both have a daughter with one white and one red eye, which provides them with sufficient proof that they must be married and living together. At this point the man and woman approach each other and they solemnly embrace. Stage directions say that the clock strikes once, very loudly, and specify that “this striking of the clock must be so loud that it makes the audience jump.” The couple does not hear the bell, however, and this disjunction alerts us to another distressing problem of misapprehension: should we, the audience, be amused by this seeming farce — or should our hair be standing on end?

“Donald, it’s you, darling!” exclaims the woman at the end of the dialogue, and the name rings like a gong struck by Ionesco from beyond the grave, another reason for the audience to start, rather than laugh at the scene. When the maid subsequently appears and addresses the audience, she only adds to our confusion. But she delivers what may be the political statement of our times, a warning to Trumpists and opponents alike, and a challenge to the president-elect’s governing ego, were it possible to inject into his consciousness a seed of healthy méconnaissance: “Donald is not Donald” (19).

*

Trump may be the first surrealist president of the United States. When this blustering, orange-haired Ubu demagogue is inaugurated on January 20, it will be almost exactly one year to the day he boasted on the campaign trail, “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.” The future president seemed to be riffing from André Breton, who famously said, “the simplest surrealist act consists of dashing down into the street, pistol in hand, and firing blindly, as fast as you can pull the trigger, into the crowd.”**

“Bitter victory of surrealism,” as the Situationists put it. Modern business tactics have coopted the avant-garde, they noted, and as a result new radical art practices were needed to confront the social ravages of consumerism and the violence of an empire in its death throes. France, in that fateful year of 1958, was confronting the rise of its own strongman president. Ionesco’s Rhinoceros premiered in Paris soon afterward, proving, in spite of the Situationists’ doubts, that absurdism could make a strong political statement by reinvigorating surrealism. Is it too much to hope that political theater can do the same today?

For the time being we may be stuck with crowd-pleasing musicals. In any case, the prospects for French radical aesthetics in the US look dim. In a cautionary tour of pre-election Appalachia – a “safari” in Trumpland, as Tabatha Southey would put it – Chris Offutt recently described how the Republican governor of Kentucky has been dismantling the state’s public education system. For Offutt, the objective of this policy is clear: uneducated white men tend to vote Republican.

The governor’s own reasoning seemed more sinister. He took direct aim at French literary studies, implying that an American outbreak of rhinoceritis would be best promoted by removing Dada, Surrealism and the Theater of the Absurd from college syllabi. Was the governor aware of the subversive potential of foreign-language instruction, too? After all, The Bald Soprano, Ionesco’s first play, was inspired by taking a course in the French Assimil method. But the governor’s explanations were as obscure as his motives. In his laconic turn of phrase, austerity measures are not so much choices as a confirmation of the inevitable or the joining of a stampede. Trumpism, it seems, is a triumph of the inexplicable. ‘“There will be more incentives to electrical engineers than French-literature majors,”’ the governor drily explained. ‘“There just will.”’


* Eugène Ionesco, The Bald Soprano and Other Plays (New York: Grove Press, 1958), 18.

**André Breton, “Second Manifesto of Surrealism,” in Manifestoes of Surrealism (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1969), 125.

 

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A Political Pathology

Election eve, 2106

American political discourse is rife with incoherence, from Sarah Palin’s word salads to Donald Trump’s staccato bluster. But like a word emerging from an infant’s babbling, misuse can yield a verbal coinage. George W. Bush, hardly a wordsmith, sometimes made a suggestive gaffe.

A word appeared this week that, to our knowledge, hasn’t been seen in print before. Since the new word didn’t draw any notice — vernacular linguists have their hands full lately — we point it out here. On November 2, 2016, The Guardian published a story about Republicans who were threatening to block any future Supreme Court candidate nominated by a Hillary Clinton administration. An interview with Senator Marco Rubio quoted him as saying that he wouldn’t reject such candidates in advance; unlike his intemperate colleagues, he would not, as he put it, “predispose” the nominees.

“No, I don’t believe that we should do that if they propose nominees that are good,” Rubio said. “I’m not going to go and predispose them that way.”

In spite of his denial, Rubio’s statement is equivocal at best; his qualification that the Clinton administration must offer “good” candidates signals his likely rejection of their nominees. In other words, or rather, in Rubio’s own new wording, the senator is very liable to “predispose” them.

Rubio’s solecism presumably draws on the sense of “disposal” as disposal of something. But the preposition of is not the only thing he has disposed of here.

Interestingly, the senator’s use of the word “predispose” seems tacitly linked to the dictionary’s standard notion of “predisposition”; in denying his Republican temperament and obstructionist leanings Rubio disavows his political “predisposition.” If this is true, the new coinage, predispose, is itself born of predisposal: the anticipatory negation of the senator’s own political character, whether through willful mendaciousness or unconscious displacement. Either way, a political pathology.

Future dictionaries may not cite this as verifiable etymology; in retracing word origins lexicographers don’t tend to plumb psychic motives. However, the authorities provide an enlightening psychological link between politics and disease in their definition of predisposition: “a liability or tendency to suffer from a particular condition, hold a particular attitude, or act in a particular way,” according to Oxford; “the state of being likely to behave in a particular way or to suffer from a particular disease,” according to Cambridge.

Our own suggested dictionary entry?

Predispose (v.): to reject something in advance; to throw out beforehand; to trash ahead of time: “Climate skeptics predisposed the future.”

 

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Oaxaca in Vancouver

Dia de Muertos 2016, Vancouver, BC

There’s a great deal of mescal in Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano. As the author’s drunken, guilt-ridden alter-ego Geoffrey Firmin descends into a “mescal-inspired phantasmagoria,”* mentions of the drink accumulate, totaling more than 50 by the book’s end. Meanwhile, its role in the plot intensifies; tellingly, mescal is the first word of the final chapter, as Firmin orders yet another drink from the bar. ‘“Mescal,” said the Consul,”’ begins Chapter 12, an incipit as blunt and ominous as the novel’s opening words in the 1940 manuscript, “It was the Day of the Dead.”

To contemporary Anglophone ears, these references to a dangerous, sinister liquor may have an odd ring, as mescal is no longer the alien drink it was to Lowry’s early readership. Over the past decade, distribution and sales of the liquor outside Mexico have dramatically increased, especially in the United States. Mescal is now available not only in the US border states but in Chicago, New York and New England; well north of California in Washington State it can be found in mass-market liquor stores. The liquor is popular in mixed drinks, but mescal also includes many top-shelf brands that rival fine scotch. As mescal grows in popularity its distribution range will no doubt keep expanding, but the drink’s apotheosis was arguably reached a few years ago when it ultimately crossed the border into Canada and arrived in liquor stores and restaurants in Vancouver, British Columbia.

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Malcolm Lowry, Dollarton, 1953

It was in Vancouver, after all, that Lowry revised and rewrote Under the Volcano, having made his way north in penury and disarray after a tumultuous sojourn in Mexico, the direct inspiration for his harrowing novel. Lowry brought with him to Vancouver a narrative vision of personal hell and he used the Oaxacan liquor as a potent metaphor of poisoned temptation. It would be hard to gauge the impact of Lowry’s dark vision on the drink’s subsequent fortunes, but seventy years after his book’s publication, mescal’s long eclipse has finally come to an end. In 2013 a mescaleria opened for business in trendy, gentrifying East Vancouver, with a menu of higher-end Mexican staples and a large selection of mescals to wash them down. Since then, taquerias and Mexican restaurants have proliferated around Vancouver and mescal is sold in restaurants and bars of all kinds. One can even find mescal on the shelves of liquor stores in North Vancouver, a stone’s throw from the present-day suburb of Dollarton, where Lowry and his second wife, Margerie Bonner, moved into a humble waterfront shack on Burrard Inlet in 1940.

The publication last year of an annotated edition of the 1940 Volcano manuscript allows us to delve more deeply into the sources of the 1947 novel and to assess the changes Lowry and Margerie Bonner made to the text during their stay in Vancouver. Interestingly, mescal has only thirteen mentions in the 1940 manuscript; the emphasis on mescal and its purportedly dangerous qualities in the published novel were developed in the course of revisions in Vancouver. The text establishes a contrast between wine and beer, on the one hand, and liquor on the other. “The dichotomy is clear: tequila and mescal would be the beginning of the end” for the Consul (333). A second contrast opposes tequila and mescal: “a contrast between tequila and mescal is maintained, with mescal the more deadly” (363). Forty-odd added mentions of mescal reinforce the theme in the novel as published. However, Lowry’s recollections in Dark as the Grave insist on no symbolic distinction: “His memories were all of suffering, hideous anxiety, or the escape from, or more powerfully into, these through tequila or mescal.”**

In the title piece of his collection of essays Fiction and the Figures of Life, William H. Gass leans heavily on Lowry’s novel to argue that literary language is an “abstract system,” autonomous and non-referential, however much it may seem to index the real world.*** Under the Volcano is a willfully contentious choice for Gass’s argument, as the novel’s meticulous orchestral structure of recurring images and symbols is matched by its equally detailed rendering of the protagonist’s anxious, compulsive experience. Like all idealist formalisms, Gass’s claims cannot do without their sacrificial violence; here the victim of the critic’s “abstract system” is the real-life novelist, “that poor wretch Malcolm Lowry” (59), “who rounded the world as a sailor, wrote a few strange stories, was twice married, and, perfectamente borracho, choked to death on his own vomit” (57). We need not be naïve literalists to object to Gass’s neat separation of Volcano‘s formal beauty from such crude reality. Moreover, the image conjured by the critic of Lowry’s miserable drunken end is inescapably full of judgment and meaning, even if it doesn’t move us to the simple, symbolic pieties Gass ridicules, such as “the fall of man” or “the foolish frailties of flesh” (70).

At the opposite pole of Gass’s cold formalism is the fond attachment of Lowry’s biographers and admirers  to the facts of the man’s life, particularly in Vancouver, which houses the author’s archive and is the site of annual literary commemorations. The 1940 manuscript clearly shows how much the book published in 1947 owes to Lowry’s 15-year Vancouver sojourn. But Under the Volcano was neither begun nor, strictly speaking, completed in Vancouver. And if, as Sheryl Salloum amply documents, Lowry found much joy, productivity and security in Vancouver, from 1946 on he lived under the constant threat of eviction from suburban developers, small-minded neighbors and municipal authorities.**** Vancouver cannot claim Lowry without owning its inhospitality.

Mescal never killed Lowry. Neither, arguably, did the bottle of gin he drank the night he died in England in 1957. Lowry died of heartbreak and despair at having lost a life he felt was idyllic in his modest waterfront shack in Dollarton, less than three years after his last eviction notice. As we celebrate the Day of the Dead this year in Vancouver, we can raise a glass of mescal to Malcolm Lowry, remembering him not as a local treasure and a source of civic pride, but as a literary wanderer, a man evicted and a homeless ghost.


* The 1940 Under the Volcano: A Critical Edition, Miguel Mota and Paul Tiessen, eds. (Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 2015), lx.

**Malcolm Lowry, Dark as the Grave Wherein my Friend is Laid, (Toronto: General Publishing, 1968), 83.

***William H. Gass, Fiction and the Figures of Life (Boston: Nonpareil Books, 1980), 63.

**** See Sheryl Salloum, Malcolm Lowry: Vancouver Days (Madeira Park, BC: Harbor Publishing, 1987).

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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).

Loan 74, f. foreedge

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.

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.

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Under wraps: the Trump Tower Vancouver

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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