The Strange Non-Death of a Supreme Court Nomination

The night of October 5th was a vigil of sorts as the US awaited word of Judge Kavanaugh’s confirmation. The week had witnessed unusually hectic dramas of participatory democracy, wild fits of hope, anger and fear, though all were shadowed by a grim sense of the inevitable. And after all the restlessness, the Senate’s vote on Saturday seemed the confirmation of a foregone conclusion. A formality, we might call this last stage in the process, if, by the word we meant to evoke a doctor short of beds in a terminal ward, urging his patient to “get on with the formality.”

If something died that night, it was anything – everything – but Brett Kavanaugh’s candidacy. And yet, in his construal of things, he had suffered grievous harm. Perhaps the most interesting moment in Kavanaugh’s statement at the sexual assault hearing was the claim that his reputation had been “totally and permanently destroyed.” The assertion was somewhat paradoxical, as his spluttering verbal rampage proved to the incredulous that a surplus demolition was indeed possible. Autopsies of the event have rightly underscored the shocking way the man’s boorish, ill-tempered and overtly partisan outbursts were quickly framed as suitable for a Supreme Court justice. And as the man’s image descended to new lows with more allegations of misconduct over the following week, commentators marvelled that his reputation, totally destroyed, then destroyed some more, had not finally collapsed. But this is perhaps to miss the point.

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Black drapery on Justice Scalia’s empty seat, Feb. 2016 (AP/J.Scott Applewhite)

In his 2011 book The Strange Non-Death of Neoliberalism, Colin Crouch tackles the reigning conundrum of our times: how can it be that, after its near-collapse 2008, the finance-based economy neither died nor even underwent significant reforms? The simple answer, of course, is that the banks were “too big to fail” and that government bailouts were, as a result, an unarguable necessity. But in requiring public funds to repair the damage they had wrought, the banks had contravened a cardinal rule of neoliberal economics, whose ideology is based on the premise of a naturally wise, self-managing independent market and its luckless corollary, a downsized, tax-starved, near-irrelevant government. In short, neoliberalism suffered a fatal blow in 2008, and yet it still persists today, as if surviving its own death.

There is every reason to believe that economic “theories” are just mathematical rationalizations of interested parties. One might, then, chalk up the peculiar “non-death” of neoliberalism to cynical opportunists somewhat inconvenienced by a flaw in their cover story. But the fact remains that banks in the wake of the 2008 crisis were fully exposed to the public as incompetent, sociopathic, devious, manipulative, predatory and cruel. To borrow a winning phrase, their reputations were “totally destroyed.” In spite of this hit to their collective image, the financiers were, and continue to be, richly rewarded.

Surviving his destroyed reputation, Kavanaugh is akin to the big bankers in more than one way. His victory in spite of his disgrace signals to an outraged public that there are inevitabilities democracy is powerless to stop. His snarling, righteous impunity signals the ascendency of an amoral ruling class, the embodiment, like Trump, of an amoral marketplace unmoored from regulations and careless of social norms and values when not actively promoting their decline.

It is often pointed out that Kavanaugh may occupy his bench for a generation – twenty-five years or more. Pause a moment to consider that twenty-five years is not only a long time, it takes us into a probably quite different time. If the past zombie years are any indication, that time will be one of vast inequalities, poor if not absent social services and potentially drastic insecurity caused by ecological collapse and climate mayhem. Social disorder is likely to breed resistance, and laws will be needed to prop up an unjust, discredited system. Here Kavanaugh’s own personal descredit will hardly be a disadvantage. Quite the contrary; Kavanaugh, with his mortally-damaged reputation, is ideally positioned to preside over laws and a justice system that will demand our fear and obedience, but require no credence or respect.

The triumph of Brett Kavanaugh is a clear victory of misogyny and white nativism. On a broader level, however, it is a victory of amorality. David Sirota is right to emphasize how the class of people Kavanaugh represents enjoy legal “immunity.” Standing above and outside the reach of the law, the realm of immunity serves as a shining example of desirable privilege for the aspiring few. But as an expression of the neoliberal market, amorality has an even broader and more corrosive reach. It undercuts in a fundamental way the normative standards of community. Indeed, it revels in the destruction of social bonds. This marketplace ideology now has its figurehead in the Supreme Court.


See Colin Crouch, The Strange Non-Death of Neoliberalism (Cambridge: Polity, 2011).

 

 

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“Ostranenie” in Mexico

In a news article on the election of López Obrador as president, The Guardian’s Tom Phillips describes scenes of joy and celebration in Mexico City. The festival atmosphere in the city center seemed to turn AMLO’s message of hope into an immediate political reality. But the political changes promised by the president-elect appear to be both more subtle and far-reaching. A close look at the journalist’s account of the evening suggests that the events of July 1 are bringing about a profound shift in human consciousness that portends a truly revolutionary movement on a global scale.

I still can’t believe it,” said Victor Gómez, one of thousands of Andrés Manuel López Obrador supporters who had descended on downtown Mexico City on Sunday night to toast their leader’s historic election victory. Gómez, a 47-year-old artist, had brought a date to the fast-growing fiesta on the Paseo de la Reforma, a wide avenue running through the Mexican capital: a papier-maché sculpture portraying the leftist president-elect as a caped superhero. (The Guardian, July 2, 2018)

By calling the Paseo de la Reforma “a wide avenue,” Phillips performs a subtle grammatical alteration of the described scene. The effect lies in his judicious use of an indefinite, rather than definite article. The word’s implications may well pass unnoticed by the average reader, as it appears in a seemingly innocuous and even superfluous phrase. But this sly deceptiveness suggests the word’s strategic role in a broader revolutionary movement of consciousness transformation, whereby the familiar is rendered strange, a process the Russian Formalists named ostranenie.

The Guardian’s Mexico City correspondent implies that the Paseo de la Reforma is not the one we are all familiar with, the avenue that runs through beloved Chapultepec Park, past the city zoo and the illustrious National Anthropology Museum; instead, as “a wide avenue,” it seems located in a different, somewhat unfamiliar place. In the same way, a person in a strange country may cross “a wide river” without knowing its name; an amnesiac might see “a large house” without realizing it’s the one he lives in; an idiot might look at the sun and not know it’s the same one as yesterday. But Phillips suggests that nothing is in fact the same as yesterday, before AMLO’s election; if the Paseo has now become “a wide avenue,” is not the Pacific ocean “a pacific ocean,” the sky “a sky,” and my husband “a man sitting at a table across from me”?

Accordingly, one is provoked, perhaps unconsciously, to imagine that these revolutionary celebrations are not happening, as Phillips says, in “the Mexican capital,” but some other capital also named Mexico City. Likewise, AMLO may not be “the leftist president-elect,” either, but just one such president among many. Of course, we should understand this apparent demotion as being part of a rigorous system of democratization that places AMLO on the same level as Gómez, “a 47-year-old artist” and even his date, “a papier-maché sculpture.” But the indefinite “a” also has a generalizing function, whereby the celebrations can no longer be thought of as local, specific, as if fatally bound to their particular place and time, but potentially everywhere and duplicatable.

This generalizing process, whereby the specificity of “the” becomes the duplicability of “a” is nothing less than the liberatory process of Formalist estrangement extended to its necessary global scale. In one of his late interviews Michel Foucault seemed to suggest as much. “The relationship between Russian Formalism and the Russian revolution should definitely be investigated precisely anew,” Foucault said.* But perhaps we should think of this estrangement not so much as an aesthetic intervention, such as the Formalists advocated, or even a surrealist subversion (like Gómez’s papier-maché president), but instead as a kind of delusion-producing infection, whereby all definites become indefinites, and all of social existence, rid of its uniqueness, thereby escapes all appropriation as well. In this way, reality, become the good of all, could also lose its ability to harm. One might then refer to “a city called New York” and “a president of the United States” residing in “a Trump Tower” – a building not located on Broadway, as we normally expect, but on “a wide avenue” like the Paseo de la Reforma.

Revolutions need the mass popular movements that only cities can breed. But liberation requires the everyday practices of space that can bring about what Henri Lefebvre called “the right to the city.” In Amulet, Roberto Bolaño has his heroine recount her life from the perspective of the roiling politics of 1968, a year of demonstrations and massacres in Mexico City. For Auxilio as for Bolaño, the right to the city is a labor of poetry, radical ostranenie and literally unearthly beauty:

“Off I went staggering through the streets of Mexico City,” says Auxilio, “… and although I was picking my way through craters illuminated by hundreds of moons, they were not the craters of planet Earth but those of Mexico.”**


*Michel Foucault, “How Much Does it Cost for Reason to Tell the Truth?” in Foucault Live (New York: Semiotext(e), 1989), 234.

**Roberto Bolaño, Amulet, trans. Chris Andrews (New York: New Directions, 2006), 65.

 

 

 

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Scene(s) of the Crime

Walter Benjamin memorably observed that Eugène Atget photographed Paris like the scene of a crime.* Atget’s subject-matter was the Paris of the Third Republic, which built much of the city that tourists admire today. But as Benjamin knew, the Third Republic rose from the ashes of a short-lived workers’ utopia, and by continuing the modernization projects of the reactionary Second Empire, the Republic inscribed lasting changes on the French capital’s spatial order and demographics. Atget, nostalgic at heart, trained his lens on a disappearing world: small shops, humble dwellings and narrow medieval streets, the traditional haunts of Paris’ popular classes. In Atget’s photos, these cityscapes are completely deserted, as if the residents had vanished into thin air.

Perhaps all urban photographers are fated to document flux and transformation, even when, like Atget, their artistic mission is to remember and preserve. This irony is especially sharp in the case of Vancouver, where globalization and property speculators have recently upedended the city. A frenzy of home demolitions and large-scale construction projects has created an urban landscape of staggering inequalities: on the one hand, a rentier class of ultra-rich migrants, money-launderers, and property developers, as well as residents and petty landlords who reap unearned income from their spiking real estate values; and on the other, a downwardly-mobile working population displaced, evicted, heavily endebted, and generally downsized by runaway speculation. In such a context any photograph soon turns historical artifact.

A recent exhibition in Vancouver encapsulates these glaring contradictions by pressing art into the service of an oligarch’s vision of urban redevelopment. Titled “Fight for Beauty,” the exhibition claims to promote the arts in civic life, but serves essentially as an advertisement for Westbank, the powerful Vancouver property developer that mounted the show. In spite of withering reviews in the local press, Westbank extended the exhibition and launched a second blitz of self-promoting ads, underscoring in this way the belligerent thrust of the show’s central theme: “the fights that build cities and culture.”

The first exhibit in “Fight for Beauty” is a small color photograph by Fred Herzog, the well-known chronicler of Vancouver’s street life. Herzog’s modernist composition captures the stark symmetry of a dock’s buildings extending into the bay at sunrise, while the Marine Building’s ziggurat looms above, half obscured by haze. Herzog’s photos are typically bustling with activity; here, the image shows no human life. Empty as an Atget cityscape, the photo captures the scene of a crime.

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Elysium? (Fred Herzog, CPR Pier & Marine Building, 1953)

As narrated by Westbank’s founder, Ian Gillespie, Herzog’s photo portrays Vancouver’s Coal Harbor “before the very idea of the neighborhood had been formed.” The claim is peculiar, as it projects into the image a retroactive meaning, as if the developer’s as-yet unborn plans for Coal Harbor lay like a germ in the photo. Strangely, too, the developer’s “idea” of the neighborhood – an ultra-wealthy enclave with luxury hotels – erases the neighborhood’s prior existence, as if rebranding it could abolish the history that stubbornly clings to its name. For the developer, it seems, history presses forward like a force of nature, always benificent, turning coal into diamonds, and helpfully building interest on his investments. We learn from Gillespie that Herzog’s photo is from his own personal collection, and that it was shot on Herzog’s very first roll of film. This valuable rarity is perhaps the only thing the photograph shares with the rest of the exhibition.

Ballet; jewelry; couture fashion; a custom-made Fazioli grand piano: “beauty,” in Westbank’s curatorial vision, is unmistakeably construed as an accessory to wealth. Likewise, the developer’s contribution to urban design is a portfolio of ultra-luxury buildings, including the Shangri-La, “Where the living is easy,” a high-rise hotel and condominium tower planted amidst of a fresh crop of global luxury retail stores and across the street from Vancouver’s gleaming new Trump Tower.

Like these business ventures, Westbank’s notion of “beauty” has a strategic, rather than aesthetic function; it gives cover to class violence and dispossession by elevating the worthy intangibles of value over the mere vulgarity of price. In so doing, though, the company only reinforces its tacit identification with people for whom money is no object. Accordingly, the show’s brochure asks, “Since when have we learned the price of everything yet know the value of nothing?” – a question that somehow manages to be not only inane, but also wounded, plaintive and even vaguely threatening. For all that, however, the query is not entirely a non-sequitur, as it betrays the anger of threatened privilege stirred to righteous self-defense. And as an expression of defensiveness, the timing of “Fight for Beauty” seems no coincidence. The show, after all, was mounted at a time of vocal, organized, and occasionally successful protests against rising rents, displacements and evictions and after a slew of bad press prompted a tightening of regulations for Vancouver’s corruption-riddled real estate industry. “Fight for Beauty” also happens to close two days after the February 2 deadline for property owners to file Empty Home Tax declarations. Recent figures show that in a city with a less than 1% rental vacancy rate, as many as 1,000 houses are demolished every year, and upward of 25,000 homes in the city are currently empty or only temporarily occupied.

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Sociopath: Westbank’s “Vancouver House” project

Westbank’s “Fight for Beauty” may tell us nothing about art, but it speaks volumes about the world-view of plutocrats who, in Chrystia Freeland’s description, see themselves as “the deserving winners of a tough, worldwide economic competition” and constitute “a transglobal community of peers who have more in common with one another than with their countrymen.”** The last point clarifies the yawning gap between Westbank and the local arts community, who countered the developer’s notion of civic beauty by pointing out that rising rents are displacing local working artists from the city. It also explains the tone of open contempt with which Gillespie refers to neighborhood anti-gentrification protests. Speaking, for instance, of development plans for the West End’s Lauren building, billed as “a luxury rental like no other in the neighborhood,” Gillespie heaps scorn on “the opposition,” a group of protesters he characterizes as “small, vocal, and sometimes violent,” underscoring the last word with a tone of lofty surprise and injury.

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Be afraid: Westbank scale model

Gillespie counts as a significant victory in his “fight for beauty” the public sculpture commissioned for the Lauren, titled “Triumph of the Technocrat.” Constructed out of reclaimed materials, the sculpture is, in Gillespie’s account, a “self-reflective critique of its own development and process of creation” — from which we can glean that the artist put some thought into it. But it would be a mistake to dismiss the developer’s words as mere verbiage, as they disclose hidden meanings in his account of the sculpture’s broader significance to “the surrounding community,” as he puts it. For Gillespie, the sculpture represents “the unseen mechanical process of development and land speculation impacting the surrounding community, drawing parallels between the role and complicity of all players in the development process.”

An oligarch’s entire social theory is sketched out here. If, on the one hand, the developer concedes that land speculation impacts the surrounding community, with all that the word “impact” implies of a violent strike, on the other, he seems to fold that community — including, presumably, protesters and activists — back into the process of development itself as complicit players. There is, apparently, something more encompassing than the “surrounding” community, something that surrounds and contains them in turn. That thing, of course, is Vancouver itself, a city run by billionaire developers and fueled by unregulated foreign capital. To live in the city is therefore to be complicit with its unchecked, runaway development, whether you agree with it or not.

Surprisingly enough, the oligarch’s social theory of general complicity lends support to Walter Benjamin, who suggested that all who participate in the city of crime are “culprits.” The claim comes in the specific passage where Benjamin speaks of Atget.

It is no accident that Atget’s photographs have been likened to those of a crime scene. But isn’t every square inch of our cities a crime scene? Every passer-by a culprit? Isn’t it the task of the photographer … to reveal guilt and to point out the guilty in his pictures? (“Little History of Photography,” 527).

Benjamin and the developer are only superficially in agreement, of course, as the former intends to prod the conscience of guilty citizens and prompt them to assume their political responsibilities. Gillespie, in contrast, sees all citizens as already inevitably subsumed in an unstoppable force of development, each of them contributing, in their own small way, to the accumulated wealth at the top of Herzog’s distant misty pyramid in the sky.

Gillespie has brashly adopted the term Gesamtkunstwerk as his company’s building ethos, despite the term’s socially-conscious significance in the German Bauhaus. And yet the word is somewhat appropriate to Westbank if translated as “all-embracing art,” for as the developer’s social theory suggests, plutocratic architecture can encompass all of social reality. It may appear contradictory that this architectural totality results in the plutocrats’ increasing distance from us, like the orbiting residents of happy Elysium. But the purpose of Westbank’s Gesamkunstwerk is not, of course, to house everyone — far from it — but instead to include us all in the economic logic that promotes and rewards spiraling inequality.

Public art itself, in Gillespie’s mind, is therefore the materialization of an all-embracing “complicity” that absorbs rival parties within the ineluctable process of gentrification. This can be seen most clearly, perhaps, in his account of Stan Douglas’ famous photograph Abbott & Cordova, 7 August 1971. The monumental image, a major work of the Vancouver School, portrays the Gastown Riots, during which police brutally attacked and arrested protesting hippies. The composite photograph hangs in the atrium of Westbank’s Woodward’s building, at the very site of the riots themselves.

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Stan Douglas, Abbott & Cordova, 7 August 1971

Completed in 2009, the Woodward’s building was and remains controversial for initiating gentrification in Gastown and the neighboring Downtown Eastside. For Gillespie, though, Stan Douglas’ photo signifies all of the history of the period, from 1971 to the present, indiscriminately. Speaking of the Woodward’s redevelopment project, Gillespie says that Abbott & Cordova “perfectly represents what this project has been all along: a fight in 1971, and a fight all the way to 2009.” Although he refers to the riots as “a pivotal moment,” that moment is construed not as belonging to its own time and context, and with its own political aims, but instead as simply “defining Gastown’s current character,” as if it led ineluctably to the gentrified present. Westbank’s version of Gesamtkunstwerk  performs here its remorselessly totalizing logic: embracing all, yet excluding most everyone, evicting them even from history. We should imagine Douglas’ photograph vacated, empty and desolate, as haunting as an image by Atget.

“Fight for Beauty” closes this weekend.


*Walter Benjamin, “Little History of Photography,” in Selected Writings: 1931-1934, 527.

**Chrystia Freeland, Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Super Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else (London: Penguin, 2012), 5.

 

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200 Years of Frankenstein

She was born in 1797, toward the end of the Little Ice Age. Wolves had been extirpated from the country, but not so long ago that one could forget. Now man’s only predator in the British Isles was a mental throwback. Does the shadow of extinction fall on the children of perpetrators? What strange gap is left in the mind of men suddenly raised from the humble status of prey?

In the winter of her sixteenth year, the river Thames froze in London for the last time. The final “Frost Fair,” a tradition dating back centuries, was held February 1814 on the river’s hard surface.

The following year, a volcano in present-day Indonesia erupted. It was the most powerful and destructive event of its kind in recorded history. Fallout caused a “volcanic winter” across the Northern Hemisphere. In 1816 – “the year without a summer” – she was in Switzerland, where she began writing her first novel, Frankenstein, published 200 years ago today — on January 1st, 1818.

During her adult years the global climate gradually warmed. Glaciers stopped advancing. But it wasn’t until the year of her death, 1851, that they began their retreat.

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Frankenstein is a work deeply embedded not only in history but in the climate and geology of its era. The novel’s dramatic opening and conclusion, and, notably, the entire personal account of the “monster” himself, take place in frozen locales. These settings of ice and snow are more than themes and symbols; they constitute the scientific matter of the novel, as much, if not more than, the story’s overt topics of chemistry, biology and physical reanimation. And as with those topics, Shelley’s fantastic imaginings of the Earth’s frozen latitudes are proving remarkable prescient.

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The novel’s opening pages relate Captain Walton’s passionate wish to be the first explorer to reach the North Pole. In the Captain’s first letter to his sister, his excitement leads him to describe the Arctic’s frozen wastes as a place of sunshine, beauty and delight. He goes so far as to say that in the North Pole of his imagination, “snow and frost are banished” – as if the curiosity he calls “fervent” and “ardent” were literally a heat-producing force of transformation.*

One measure of a classic text is that it discloses new meanings to different eras. Walton’s aim of “discovering a passage near the pole” may sound strangely familiar to a reader today. In the summer of 2016, the first luxury cruise liner traversed the fabled Northwest Passage, a sea route that had long been impassible, and, as recently as a decade ago, navigable only by icebreakers. Likewise for Russia’s northern sea route; last summer, a tanker made the first transit from Europe to Asia via the Arctic Ocean.

Climate change, in other words, is turning Walton’s fervid dreams of an overheated Arctic into reality. Ironically, global warming is occurring fastest in the polar regions; scientists now expect the North Pole to be ice-free within a few decades. Shelley could hardly have anticipated these outcomes, though the connection she makes is far from coincidental. Captain Walton’s adventurous spirit is no doubt symbolic of a Goethian Romantic ziel, but the man also embodies the period’s abrupt leap forward in science and the technologies of transportation. As such, Walton and his scientific ambitions personify a force whose environmental costs are now coming due. That earth-altering force is the European Industrial Revolution, whose opening act, variously dated from the late eighteenth to the early nineteenth century, overlapped with the end of the most recent ice age.

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Caspar David Friedrich, The Sea of Ice (1823–1824)

Shelley clearly dramatizes the destructive force of Frankenstein’s scientific work in the young doctor’s blind ambition, his reckless experimentation, his familial neglect, and his heedless irresponsibility to the creature of his making. What was merely allegorical in Shelley’s time has now become our sorry reality, however. Examples of Frankensteinian science abound; to cite only one recent instance, an investigative article by Reuters exposes the “horror movie” character of the commercial trade in body parts. But the everyday banalization of Shelley’s horror theme should not obscure the contemporary relevance of her cautionary tale, whose moral implications can be seen most clearly in the man-made predicament of climate change: a crime against nature that may warrant the name of “sin”; the unleashing of an unstoppable destructive agency in inhuman form; and, in what the World Economic Forum blithely calls the “upside” of catastrophe, a melted North Pole that will yield new profits for commercial transport.

Captain Walton sees in Victor Frankenstein a kindred spirit, and Shelley reinforces the symmetry of their burning passions when, at the end of the novel, Victor relates the “fervour” of his pursuit as the “monster” leads him northward and into the Arctic.

I resolved not to fail in my purpose,” says Victor, “and calling on heaven to support me, I continued with unabated fervour to traverse immense deserts, until the ocean appeared at a distance.… Covered with ice, it was only to be distinguished from land by its superior wildness and ruggedness.

As Victor considers the rigors of an arctic journey, he becomes a man entirely consumed by destructive rage. “At the idea that the fiend should live and be triumphant,” Victor says, “my rage and vengeance returned, and like a mighty tide, overwhelmed every other feeling.” As with Walton, Shelley insists on the burning force that drives Victor on.

I have endured misery which nothing but the eternal sentiment of a just retribution burning within my heart could have enabled me to support. Immense and rugged mountains of ice often barred up my passage, and I often heard the thunder of the ground sea, which threatened my destruction. But again the frost came and made the paths of the sea secure.

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Caspar David Friedrich, study for The Sea of Ice (1821)

 

Frankenstein’s subtitle, The Modern Prometheus, links Victor to the Greek deity who created man and stole fire to give it to humanity. In light of this fiery theme, it is significant that Victor’s voyage ends with the break-up of the sea ice, as if, like Walton, his burning passion can melt the frozen landscape. Accordingly, Victor’s last vision of the Arctic is not one of frozen desolation but of water and melting ice. The doctor ends his journey north on a drifting ice floe, like a stranded polar bear — a ubiquitous metonym in the press and social media for the polar environmental crisis. If, then, the last words of Victor’s narrative might seem overwrought today in their romantic excess, one might instead imagine them as capturing the desperate anguish of an apex predator threatened with extinction. Shelley’s “fervid” rhetoric points ahead to dangers beyond man, beyond language, and thus beyond all hyperbole:

A ground sea was heard; the thunder of its progress, as the waters rolled and swelled beneath me, became every moment more ominous and terrific. I pressed on, but in vain. The wind arose; the sea roared; and, as with the mighty shock of an earthquake, it split and cracked with a tremendous and overwhelming sound. The work was soon finished; in a few minutes a tumultuous sea rolled between me and my enemy, and I was left drifting on a scattered piece of ice that was continually lessening and thus preparing for me a hideous death.


*Mary Shelley, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (London: Lackington, Hughes, Harding, Mavor & Jones, 1818).

 

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American Carnage

I’m so ambitious / I’m looking back

— David Byrne, “The Book I Read”

Right-wing minds betray a constant paradox: their passion for the market is matched only by their nostalgia for the very world that capital destroys. In Donald Trump this contradiction is pushed to an extreme. Economic damage calls for more destruction; suffering warrants further punishment. The dark vision of “American carnage” on Trump’s inauguration day was quickly followed by a rollback of regulations that are bound to hit Main Street with especially nasty force.

The contradiction between backward-looking conservatism and headlong development has now arguably reached its terminal impasse. By favoring tax cuts and big business over climate protection the Trump administration has put the lie to right-wing calls to return to an earlier time, to rebuild the economy, to make America a great white ethno-state againThis is because the denial of climate change winds a clock that can’t be turned back. History, known for its fits, starts and reversals, now runs on fast-forward only. For climate scientists, the watchword of this awful predicament is irreversibility.

Life will get worse and there’s no going back: if this stark message has failed so far to rule our days, it’s because we’re used to coping with the rising costs of progress. The tax cuts passed by the Senate today will surely increase those familiar hardships. The difference now is that our collective delusions of profit and security are troubled by our fast-widening distance from the homeostatic past. In this way, we’re like the characters in George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo: looking back with regret at the world we’ve left behind, unwilling to face the future — and unaware that we’re already dead.

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Lincoln in the Bardo is a treatise on irreversibility. The novel is anchored in a painful, lovestruck sense of irremediable loss. Like all great works of art, the book feels not only important but necessary. One might say timely, but it’s not clear what the word means to the untimely present. In Bardo’s Lincoln, Saunders gives us a head of state whose soulful anxiousness at the start of the Civil War is strangely suited to the man’s crushing historical responsibility. This topic can’t fail to move today’s readers with renewed wonder and horror at what we’ve suddenly lost over the past year. We face crises much greater than Lincoln’s, but we do so at a time when willful malice occupies the White House, language and truth are martyrized daily, and a government of vandals lays us open to disasters without end.

Obviously these problems have been a long time coming, but a cynical view of the past may underestimate the moral value of stubborn, agonized and desperate nostalgia, the reigning condition of Saunders’ main characters. Bevins, a young gay man thwarted in love, is in thrall to vivid yet chaotic images of earthly beauty — a stammering, captive Whitman. His regular companion, Vollman, knew a single night of perfect bliss before losing his wife and home. As they understand it (poorly), Bevins and Vollman succumbed to the same ailment and were confined to “sick boxes,” they say. At night, though, they can climb out of the “boxes” to share their grief and perplexity with the other captive residents of Oak Hill cemetery in Washington, DC.

Like these characters, Lincoln is unable to give up what he has recently lost. The night after the funeral of his young son, the president can’t help returning to the cemetery, where his desperate love drives him to remove Willie from the crypt to hold his body again. To the watchful ghosts Bevins, Vollman and others, this remarkable act of devotion — a “miracle” in their eyes — suggests that they, too, are perhaps not unloved, that they may not be unwelcome after all in “that previous place,” as they confusedly call the world of the living. Amazing also to the ghosts, Lincoln stays late into the night at the cemetery, and during a second visit to his son’s crypt, the distinguished revenant’s mind Version 2is host to many curious phantoms, young and old, rich and poor, black and white. Lincoln becomes legion, and on his way home, one of the ghosts, a black man, rides with the head of state into the dark and uncertain future.

The theme of metempsychosis allows Saunders to display his marvelous gifts of empathetic character portrayal, familiar to readers of his short stories. In this novel, Saunders’ first, the writer’s empathy takes literal form in the ghosts’ visitations of Lincoln’s mind and each others’ troubled spirits. The ghosts know each other’s life stories verbatim and often complete each other’s sentences, having heard everyone’s litanies of desire and regret thousands of times. This makes their condition tiresome, but the ghosts are fiercely proud of their persistence; they’re determined not to abandon the world they remember, and they even deny they are dead.  When a newly-buried civil war soldier emerges from the grave and opts for the afterlife, the ghosts furiously desecrate the “sick-mound” he has left behind. Vollman, observing the scene, explains with scrupulous care that they do this “not out of meanness, for there is no meanness in them; but rather from excess of feeling.”*

The episode suggests an allegory of historical remembrance, albeit one almost saintly in its forgiving empathy. We see an equally suggestive “excess of feeling” in the gruesome image of a soldier on the battlefield who has quite literally spilled his guts. Saunders yields the pen to historical testimony, and cites directly:

I had never seen a dead person before. Now I saw my fill. One poor lad had frozen solid in the posture of looking down aghast at his wound, eyes open. Some of his insides had spilled out and made, there on his side, under a thin coat of ice, a blur of purple and red. At home on my dressing table was a holy card of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and this fellow looked like that, only his bulge of red and purple was lower and larger and off to one side and him gazing at it in horror (153).

The “thin coat of ice” covering the ghastly wound of the soldier echoes the “placental sheen” that begins to cover Willie’s ghost, threatening to trap the boy’s spirit forever in the cemetery. Bevins and Vollman make it possible for Willie to finally pass on to the afterlife, and Willie, in turn, disabuses them of their delusion of returning to the world of the living, having learned from his father that they are all, in fact, dead. Saunders’ vision of American carnage ultimately leads to redemption and renewal.

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We might fault Saunders’s novel for offering a moral that, despite its Buddhist echoes, reinforces familiar Christian motifs of purgatory and salvation (“Bardo” is a Tibetan term for the liminal state between death and rebirth). More generously, we could say the book is conflicted on this score. When Vollman complains that “the architect of this place” has judged that a child’s wish to to stay in the cemetery is “a terrible sin, worthy of the most severe punishment,” it is as much the author as the “architect” who can be faulted for the injustice. For it remains unclear why, in this fictional moral universe, it is wrong for the adults “to love one’s life enough to desire to stay here,” as Vollman, Bevins and others do. Saunders puts a thumb on the scales by making many of the ghosts’ characters flawed in some way, but this only exacerbates the moral conundrum. The case of Elson Farwell, a former slave, is instructive. Buried among the poor and criminal class in a common “sick-pit,” Farwell holds fast to the desire to go back and massacre every member of the family that owned and abused him, wife, children and baby included — a wish that should hardly be the cause of a reader’s reproof. It might instead serve as a model of moral justice.

Elson’s apparent “sin” is as fictional and deluded as the idea of his “sickness.” Likewise, by holding to what remains irreparable in history, Black justice may not turn back the hours, but it often faces counterclockwise. So too do socialism and ecological justice, which look back today at our lost best chances; for ten years now it has been “too late” to stop a warming world. At a time when the current president sows discord and makes good on his vision of “American carnage,” we can glean a different lesson from the ghosts’ insistence on returning to the past. To stop time in order to “reverse it,” as Bevins says, may not be to indulge in conservative bad faith or deluded nostalgia. Instead, it would be to commit ourselves to the impossible and to acknowledge what is truly hopeless in our present state.

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Postscript: On December 20, the U.S. Congress passed the Trump tax reform bill. It was disturbingly warm in D.C.; people were lunching outdoors in Georgetown. The mild weather highlighted the bill’s lurking threats: under cover of a gift to all, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act was poised to supercharge economic inequality, and, by burdening the state with a huge deficit, virtually guaranteed draconian cuts to future social services. The tax bill’s biggest losers, the poor, the elderly and the infirm, were thus assured further suffering in the coming years. But a government downsized by revenue cuts also guaranteed worsening life prospects for all social classes: the state, crippled in its regulatory functions, would be unable to rein in end-game capitalism and accelerating climate change. It was easy to imagine these social, economic and climatic conditions prompting the civil conflicts presaged by Omar El Akkad’s novel American War.**

I chose to mark December 20 with a visit to Oak Hill Cemetery. It felt like a spring day — a spring without birds, flowers, or the slightest hint of color. On North Hill, a child lay under a stone slab, featureless. Nothing moved. The place was empty. In the tepid hush it seemed like time was set on pause.


* George Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo (New York: Random House, 2017), 140.

** Omar El Akkad, American War (New York: Knopf, 2017).

 

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Fresh hell

One can’t help notice a bad grammar mistake, but it doesn’t set off an alarm until you hear it again. With repetition the error becomes the verbal equivalent of a sin; but what then of the first transgression, you wonder, and where does the fault lie if it exists only in the plural? Meanwhile, unfazed by your moral worries, the locution spreads, becomes commonly accepted; you wonder if it might enter the dictionaries. You wonder, that is, how low we can go.

“Downfall.” The word is increasingly used to mean drawback, presumably by association with downside. “The only downfall was the bathroom,” says a restaurant review on Yelp. “The only downfall is the service,” says another. In a Seattle hotel review, “the only downfall” was urine on the sheets of “one of our beds.” When so much can go wrong, it seems that a lone downfall, or a single soiled bed, can be a blessing. In this way, mentioning a “downfall” can emphasize an overall success. Out of sheer scrupulousness, apparently, a patron of La Quinta details her frustration with the hotel’s excessively soft pillows. “Nonetheless,” she cheerily concludes, “that was the only downfall!”

Since “downfall,” in its proper sense, signifies a uniquely terrible and often terminal ruination, its use in these cases can be judged hyperbolic. Add the adjective “only” and the expression seems wholly redundant. But this is where the word’s new usage parts company with its staid cousin. The chorus of downfalls in our current vernacular suggests that ruination is in fact common and ordinary; the word “only” implies that the downfall in question is Version 2just one among many potential or even infinite possible downfalls. Other phrases suggest the same: the ever-relevant “new low,” for instance, and the increasingly popular “fresh hell” — as in the phrase (rhetorical question? Or not?) what fresh hell is this? Grammar prescriptivists may scoff, but who can deny the aptness of these phrases in a time when every low point turns out to be a false bottom, like a trap door to endless stacked gallows?

A book written by Christian Marazzi in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis implies as much by predicting “repetitive downfalls” in the world economy: “Over the course of 2009, and beyond,” says the author, “we will witness the succession of a false recovery, a hiccups movement in the stock exchange followed by repetitive downfalls.”* With its attention to the language of economics, Marazzi’s volume is prescient in more ways than one; the book includes a handy appendix, titled “Words in Crisis,” that lists the key terms of contemporary financial jargon, the watchwords of our grim reality. But the language of the analysis itself, including “repetitive downfalls” and “hiccups movement” seems to be symptomatic of crisis too, its stuttering awkwardness the sign of a hurried attempt to catch up with careering events — unless it is due to the translator, who we imagine (why not?) as harried, wretched, underpaid, no doubt desperate to keep to her deadlines and obligatory word count? Whatever the case, the prognosis of “repetitive downfalls” in The Violence of Financial Capitalism lends support to Colin Crouch’s insight that following its apparent demise, neoliberalism now persists in a weird state of continual “non-death,”** as well as the grim prognosis of “permanent economic collapse” that David Wallace-Wells says is our likely fate on an increasingly overheated planet. More recently, an ominous editorial by Eugene Robinson points to “a succession of new lows” in U.S. politics and darkly predicts that “the worst is yet to come.”

As a complex of overdetermined meanings, then, “the only downfall” is a culturally valid expression. It contains a host of social and economic anxieties and is therefore “crucial enough to pass along,” as a film critic says of horror’s infectious appeal.*** Google the words “only downfall” and your first hit is likely to be a popular and widely-shared quote signed r.h. Sin: “The only downfall of having a good heart is that you’re constantly looking for angels inside of demons.” The quote suggests that the word “downfall” may have migrated from its standard meaning, glomming new ones in the process, but still remains close to the source: Sin’s “downfall” unmistakably suggests Lucifer’s fall and man’s degraded state.

No joke, then; no mistake; no exaggeration. Wordsmiths at the blast furnace, our amateur linguists who labor pro bono on Yelp, Twitter, and interminable comment threads may be right to complain. They say we’re in hell, and glad “nonetheless” that our punishment is “only” this bad, that it’s “only” a few degrees warmer, and it’s “only” just begun.


*Christian Marazzi, The Violence of Financial Capitalism, Kristina Lebedeva, trans. (Los Angeles: Semiotexte, 2010), 11. It is noteworthy that the later edition of the book, translated by Lebedeva and Jason Francis McGimsey, substitutes the word “downturns” for “downfalls” — a translation no doubt more grammatically accurate but less symptomatically true to the crisis of the writing. Indeed, the previous “error” might be said to be closer to the events the book reconstructs (the start of the Wall Street crash) as well as those of the author and his translator, both suffering its immediate aftermath. Accordingly, a truer historical account of the causes and consequences of the 2008 financial crisis might be best pursued not in the field of economics but in close reading — specifically, close reading of significant errors, including the word “downfall.” What justifies this foray of literary analysis into the study of contemporary finance? We have seen that the word “downfall” is laden with an implicit knowledge of the socio-political conditions of the present. Further, grammatical errors, due to their dense overdetermination of meanings, are close to poetic expressions in their semantic complexity, and thus to artistic expression more generally. As a result, Argentine author César Aira’s theory of interpretation can be brought to bear on the socio-economic historiography of our recent past. Indeed, Aira’s theory of historical reconstruction, according to which “art … permits the reconstruction of the real-life circumstances from which it emerged” is the only theory capable of approaching the time-frame of financial trading, whose complex operations, like dreams, can occur in mere nanoseconds. In this way, interpretation can yield results that are a great deal more concrete than linguistic meanings and mathematical figures, even if the reconstructed “particles of reality,” in their increasing detail, tend ineluctably toward the impalpable. As Aira says, “The course of events that preceded the composition [of the work of art] can be deduced from the text, in ever greater detail, as one reads it over and over again. Perceptual data is recovered in this way, but also psychological binding elements, including memories, daydreams, oversights, uncertainties and even subliminal brain flashes. The treatment of the external conditions should be similarly inclusive: the succession can be progressively enriched with particles of reality, down to the subatomic level and beyond.” See César Aira, Varamo, Chris Andrews, trans. (New York: New Directions, 2012), 45, 44.

**See Colin Crouch, The Strange Non-death of Neoliberalism (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2011).

*** James B. Twitchell, cited in Carol Clover, Men, Women, and Chain Saws (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), 11.

 

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Brutalism Revisited

The Sirius building is a social housing complex in the Rocks district of central Sydney. The Lego-like Brutalist structure has been lauded by architects and residents since its opening in 1980, but rising real estate prices have lately put it in the crosshairs of redevelopment. Today only a few tenants remain; the building is slated for demolition.

Over the past year community groups and architects lobbied to protect the Sirius with heritage status, but the New South Wales Government opted to cash in on the land’s high value, citing profits that could be spent on social housing projects elsewhere. In so doing, however, the Government tacitly sanctioned the gentrification process, condemning the Sirius’ low-income residents to banishment from the city center and erasing a monument to social welfare and inclusive urban planning. Born of labor strikes and community organizing in the 1970s, the Sirius embodies an egalitarian ethos in its identical concrete modules and generous common spaces, values casually dismissed by the Finance Minister, who recently tweeted, “if you need a PhD in Architecture to ‘appreciate’ the #Sirius building, then it’s clearly not a building for the people.”

In retrospect, the Sirius’ opening date of 1980 seems fatefully symbolic: the year is commonly seen as the start of the neoliberal era. Its pending demolition is no less significant, as it coincides with what may be that era’s nasty, fitful demise. Similarly, the Finance Minister’s arrogance harks back to Thatcherism, while his faux-populist attack on so-called “elites” echoes a fascist strain in contemporary governance. In the Sirius debacle we can see neoliberalism’s end game, its last-ditch raid on the commons and public wealth. No wonder Brutalism is having a resurgence of interest lately; buildings like the Sirius look increasingly utopian and retro-futurist in our disenchanted glass-and-steel cityscapes.

Before, that is, they fall to the bulldozer.

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Sydney is ranked as the world’s second most unaffordable city; Vancouver, BC comes in a close third on that unfortunate list. Like Sydney, Vancouver has widening social inequality due to skyrocketing land values, and as in Sydney, the real estate trade in luxury homes is causing a loss of heritage structures and a crisis in social housing. Meanwhile, as market force disrupt public education, large-scale campus redevelopment projects mirror the Sirius controversy; privatization at the University of British Columbia is leading to the the demolition and remodeling of Brutalist structures, once a defining feature of the school’s built environment. As a result, a tour of UBC’s Brutalist architecture is like a visit to the fast-receding recent past.

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UBC’s Museum of Anthropology was designed by Arthur Erickson and opened its doors in 1976. The building is as impressive as its setting. Tall windows provide views northward of forested islands and mountains; the landscaped grounds drop off abruptly to the sea. The museum’s grand architectural motif of concrete pillars and cantilevered crossbeams echoes the totem poles and post-and-beam structures of the Northwest Coast First Nations. As the University pursues a master plan of so-called “transparency” in new campus buildings, the MOA stands as a dignified reminder that Brutalist concrete and glass are far from incompatible.

The Museum of Anthropology is built on the site of three WWII battery gun emplacements, one of which is incorporated into a circular gallery. An attentive visitor can make out the concrete foundation of battery gun #3 on the west side of the museum’s main hall. Two searchlight towers still stand on the shore below the museum.

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This convergence of Brutalism and bunker architecture at the Museum of Anthropology is highly suggestive. The same year as the MOA opened to the public, the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris mounted an exhibition of photographs of WWII bunkers, which were published with an accompanying theoretical treatise by the photographer, Paul Virilio, as Bunker archéologie.

Virilio, a professor of architecture, saw military bunkers as a testimony to the radical transformation of modern space-time by the threat of “total war.” He claimed that a certain “poetry” inheres in the bunkers’ obsolescent principles of armored defense, deriving as they do from the pre-nuclear age of artillery. By the war’s end those principles would be wholly invalidated, and along with them, any idea of security and protection in the civil sphere, too. “The bunker,” Virilio says, “is the protohistory of an age in which the power of a single weapon is so great that no distance can protect you from it any longer.”*

Looking back at Virilio’s 1976 exhibit, we recognize that similar feelings of fear and regret color our view of Brutalism today: nostalgia for an age of welfare and social security, a world in which public institutions, including universities, could still defend against the market and finance capital. From the perspective of globalization’s discontents, Brutalism can appear almost naïve, its confident structures unwittingly vulnerable. Like the bunkers, then, Brutalism is protohistorical: its heyday already anticipated our age of homogenized, globalized, transnational space.

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These historical contradictions are expressed in Brutalism’s language of design as a play of contrasts: solidity and absence, weightlessness and bulk. At the MOA’s southwest corner, a jutting shape frames a rectangular void, a zen garden among the cedars. The concrete’s bold horizontal levitation contrasts with the forest’s randomly-spaced tree trunks and wayward branches. Massive as it is, however, the concrete wall reminds us that it plays a modest role no different than any other construction material: to host the transitory and contain the intangible. Here, the stark contrast between immateriality and bulk exacerbates the contradiction, challenging the massive material to yield further, to withdraw, to aspire in spite of itself to sheer abstract form.

Across the street at the Peter Wall Institute, a high-ceilinged dining lounge opens onto a secluded garden and a pond bordered by concrete patios. With its long horizontal planes, deep overhanging roofline and seamless articulation of indoor and outdoor space, the lounge and its garden evoke a touchstone of modernist architecture, Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion. UBC’s Brutalist reimagining of the 1929 Pavilion accentuates the Bauhaus building’s cantilevered concept by substituting a massive concrete block for Mies’ long, slender lid.

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The Barcelona Pavilion was inspired by traditional Japanese architecture. A visitor to the Peter Wall lounge can take the measure of the Brutalist building’s Eastern heritage by visiting the nearby Nitobe garden’s simple, elegant tea house, an ethereal structure of wood, straw, bamboo and paper. With the tea house in mind, Brutalist bulk gives way to abstraction, and spatial volume becomes nearly palpable, like a sculpture shedding its mould.

We might even trace the architectural sources of the Peter Wall lounge further back still, and imagine the concrete structure “not so much built as knotted together, plaited, woven, embroidered,” as Lévi-Strauss said of a Bororo village in Brazil. To the visiting anthropologist, the delicate yet monumental Bororo houses seemed more like clothing than edifice. Interestingly, his ethnographic descriptions confirm Virilio’s insight into the fragility of fortifications: the houses, Lévi-Strauss said, were “like a light, flexible suit of armour, closer to Western women’s hats than to Western towns.”** The anthropologist’s descriptions serve to illustrate his larger argument that built space reflects social structure, that is to say, the intangibles of language and community. At the Peter Wall lounge, students can have lunch along with professors and residents on fellowship; but nothing keeps a campus visitor from enjoying the space, too.

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The Peter Wall Institute includes residences for visiting scholars that have large windows and balconies with sweeping views of Howe Sound and the North Shore mountains. This longstanding gesture of hospitality to scholars was recently retracted, however; the Institute has reclaimed the upper floor spaces for administrative offices. Elsewhere at UBC, similar shifting priorities are transforming the role of Brutalist buildings in social and academic life.

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The Walter Gage student residences date from 1972. The Brutalist complex includes three tall towers with grand views of mountains and sea. From lower levels, however, that perspective has become more restricted as UBC has monetized the natural view. An anomaly at a public university, UBC includes an enclave of luxury private houses, townhomes and condominiums within the academic campus core. These expensive properties now stand betwp_20170206_09_39_01_proween the midcentury dormitories and the mountain views. Planted at the heart of the luxury neighborhood is the imposing granite-clad School of Economics, whose ersatz Oxbridge crenellated tower provides a fitting backdrop for the residents, evoking as it does an era of educational class privilege. Moreover, the building’s idea of fortification is so antiquated that, inverting the meaning of Virilio’s bunker archeology, it relegates the idea of danger to the domain of myth.

The contrast is striking: on one side of Walter Gage Road, the Brutalist complex; on the other, picture windows, granite cladding, generous balconies and vast penthouse terraces. UBC touts the revenue it gains from its real estate sales, but a glaring contradiction remains: ownership of a view home on the “public” university campus is the sole privilege of the ultra-wealthy. Meanwhile, UBC is launching a new venture to address student affordability problems: “nano” apartments currently in development will offer 140 square feet of living space — exactly twice the minimum standard size of an American prison cell. These tiny dorms will stand well back from the views next to the university bus exchange on the far side of the Brutalist dormitories.

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Buchanan Tower is perhaps the starkest exemplar of Brutalism on the UBC campus. Inspired by an Arthur Erickson building in downtown Vancouver, Buchanan Tower is commonly judged unattractive, but its uncompromising grid of identical windows is the physical sanction of an egalitarian ideal: no penthouse, no corner offices. We might conjecture, then, that it is not so much Buchanan Tower’s starkness as its outmoded ideals that make the building “an object of disgust,” as Virilio said of the bunkers, in contrast to the pleasure commonly afforded by “transparent and open civilian architecture.” In this light, a negative judgment of the tower could be seen as a moral failing rather than a mere lapse of taste.

The recent film High-Rise displays a similar error of judgment by making an emphatically Brutalist apartment building the virtual protagonist in a social allegory of dystopia and class warfare. With its domineering architect residing atop the tower in a luxury home and social classes ranked below on corresponding floor levels (the working class tellingly omitted, however), the building’s spatial ethos is clearly more representative of globalized neoliberalism’s luxury towers than Brutalism. In an interview, the director of High-Rise claimed that his intention was not to discredit 50’s and 60’s architecture, but in so doing he made a telling aside. “I went to Vancouver for the first time and stayed in a tower block, with me being slightly prejudiced against tower blocks, and this thing was really beautiful,” the director said. “Everyone lives in these tower blocks,” he continued, “and they’re all alright, that kind of condo, and this is seen as the height of luxury.”

Needless to say, the director’s vision of Vancouver is singularly blind to the violent dystopias fostered by such “beautiful luxury.” What better symbol of the social cost of luxury than Vancouver’s Trump International Hotel & Tower, due to open the 28th of this month? In a sorry confirmation of the victory of the oligarchs and the corresponding demise of Brutalism, the glass and steel Trump Tower was designed by none other than Arthur Erickson.

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All Brutalist architecture owes a debt to the visionary apartment design of Le Corbusier, the Unité d’habitation, first constructed in Marseille in 1952. On an architectural tour of that building some years ago, this writer was hosted by a resident who had lived there happily for decades. The old woman firmly expressed the wish that she would never have to leave her pleasant, stark modernist apartment. Was she afraid of eviction? That she might outlive the building — or even Brutalism itself? I didn’t ask. But I remember how she put it: “I hope I die here.”


*Paul Virilio, Bunker Archaeology (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1994), 46.

**Claude Lévi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques, 215.

 

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