Landscape organizes everything within sight.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Conservative economists love liberal urban planning

Isaiah Berlin, Jane Jacobs, it's all there: if you're a young Republican, or one of those Heritage Foundation interns put up in the nice dormitories, you're reading about the same list as the Marxists in Berkeley architecture.

Reason magazine, the voice of the libertarian Right, can't get enough of Jane:

Reason: A couple of years ago, Jesse Walker, an associate editor of REASON, wrote that your ideas are being seized by the sustainability crowd and are being abused. He wrote, "To the extent that they have digested Jacobs, they have romanticized her vision, bastardizing her empirical observations of how cities work into a formula they want to impose not just on cities but on suburbs and small towns as well."

Jacobs: I think there's a lot of truth to that. For example, the New Urbanists want to have lively centers in the places that they develop, where people run into each other doing errands and that sort of thing. And yet, from what I've seen of their plans and the places they have built, they don't seem to have a sense of the anatomy of these hearts, these centers. They've placed them as if they were shopping centers. They don't connect. In a real city or a real town, the lively heart always has two or more well-used pedestrian thoroughfares that meet. In traditional towns, often it's a triangular piece of land. Sometimes it's made into a park.

The reasons for doing so are a little different, maybe, but what this means for cities is essentially an uncharacteristic and surprising rapprochement between poor, liberal, head-in-the-air designers and the rich, multinational schemesters they serve. Uncharacteristic and surprising because the designers have all along promoted themselves as idealists of rebellion: perhaps subverting the system from within, but still subverting it.

So what's going on here? Have the compassionate designers finally convinced their corporate masters that what's good for the goose is good for the gander?

Jacobs, sounding like your average architect or planner of any experience whatsoever, has made a platform out of pointing out the shortcomings of "schools," "theories," and youthful ambition. Not surprising really: experience in practice-oriented disciplines like architecture is always pointing out the shortcomings of ideals. What makes the critique so seductive to a certain kind of Republican is that they share a common enemy in the top-down, planned-in-advance, state-run bureaucratically-farmed city government. Jacobs hates it because it crushes the soul out of organic communities, particularly immigrant ones. The Republicans hate it because it wants to regulate commerce.

Ok, let me back up. I don't actually believe that the Republicans have been duped by wily urban planners, or that urban planners are having their logic twisted against them. But I do see a funny rapprochement between two groups who don't usually talk to each other. In general, Red States and Blue States also break down as Rural States and Urban States, and even more so when Republican Suburban Areas face of Democratic Deeply Urban Areas. Remember the Metro/Retro campaign, which tried to woo voters with suave shots of antiquated rural Americana against hip urban town scenes. The campaign utterly failed to seduce to anyone who wasn't Democratic already.

These all stand as reasons why Republicans should hate Jane Jacobs. The guru of city planning for generations, Jacobs hates lawns, hates suburbs, hates homeowner associations, hates all-white-neighborhoods, hates the color line, and hates bankers. It sounds as if she wouldn't so much enjoy talking to the people who are reading her. The Reason interviewer explains, for instance, that his daughter, a lawyer, was forced to leave San Francisco because it was too expensive: clue 1. He and his daughter are (probably) the kind of suburbanite who feel entitled to more space than most of us can afford in San Francisco and New York.

That Reason-reading Republicans would fear high rents and live in suburbia makes sense to us. These sorts of facts jive with the average liberal's expectations for the Republican editor and his family: that they want to live among other white people, in the suburbs, away from crime, in cheap commodious housing designed for single-class interaction, which all, according to liberal assumptions, make the average Republican less likely to have to brush elbows with the person of color, the homeless veteran, the welfare recipient, and the immigrant without health care. Check, check. But then why are these Republicans reading Jane Jacobs?

I don't really know the answer, and I'd like to know. But one possible explanation is this: that many of the lines we've been drawing in the sand about liberal/conservative, red/blue, Republican/Democrat, are in the end fairly superficial. Like stem cell research, abortion, and gay marriage, urban planning is an issue where consensus drapes across party boundaries. Follow the lines of these groups and you watch the shape of movements and parties to come out of the fragmentations of the future.

I have another premonition about why, too. It's possible that some of these clear-thinking, hard-headed libertarian economists have noticed the rising sea-levels, changing weather patterns, escalating price of gasoline, and limited provision for transit outside of the city core. Most of them still live in the suburbs, but some of them may have started thinking about what it would be like to fall in love with a city. And for that, one has to read Jane Jacobs on immigrants.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Plans for phone mast in church spire

As if you needed more proof that the evangelicals' success at making God the instrument of the free market:
David Broome, 55, an electrical engineer from Church Lane, said: "Everybody has been up in arms about it. We are absolutely gob-smacked.

Conservative Anglicans leave the Archbishop

One more slammed door and this relationship is over. Marriage counseling has done nothing for these people. Sounds like they left first to me:
Bishop Michael Ingham, of the Canadian diocese of New Westminster whose decision to authorise a service for same-sex blessings has led to his condemnation by conservatives, said: "The existence of this constitution is scandalous. It suggests there is no willingness to engage in the conversations or the listening process called for by the primates at the Northern Ireland meeting."

American conservative Episcopalians denied knowledge of the Anglican Global Initiative as did a spokesman for Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Call for papers: religion & spatiality

For an upcoming issue of the journal Radical History Review that focuses on religion and politics, we invite authors to write and submit short articles or essays (12-18 pages, double-spaced) to be published in a special forum exploring the theme "Converted Spaces." We envision the forum to include 3-5 pieces that explore the following questions:

How do physical spaces (buildings, streets, shrines, natural landscapes) function as sites of contestation among competing religious groups? How do such sites accommodate multiple religious faiths?

In areas where one religious group became displaced by another, how were physical spaces "converted" from the old to the new faith? What were the social, cultural, and political consequences of such converted spaces?

How are sacred spaces "secularized"? How are secular, public, or civic spaces (courthouses, schools) transformed when religious rituals, symbols, and/or practices enter them? What are the socio-political and cultural ramifications of such transformations?

Possible topics include, but are not limited to, the Christianization of non-Christian sacred sites in Europe or regions colonized by Europeans; the destruction of Muslim mosques in India and their conversion into Hindu shrines; the use of churches for organizing dissent in the former Communist nations of Eastern Europe; debates about wearing head scarves by Muslim girls in French schools; the use of public schools in the United States for religious education and programs; the rise and function of so-called 'mega churches' in the United States; etc. We are interested in historical analyses, as well pieces analyzing current issues with historical perspectives.

Interested authors should send a proposal to with "Converted Spaces RHR 99" in the subject line of the e-mail message. Deadline for proposals is September 1, 2005. If your proposal is accepted for publication, final essays will be due January 15, 2006.

Freeway bloggers strike South Dakota

Highway traffic used as a political agenda abounds in SF. But these guys rock. South Dakota, we salute you. Good work.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Synthesis :: thesis

What ever happened to the rolling, detail-laden essay of personal pilgrimage through the purgatories of contemporary society? On vacation I bought along Derrida's Acts of Religion and McLuhan The Medium is the Message. And I was trying to process something like how the kind of deep Hilaire Belloc / Huxley / McLuhan / JB Jackson synthetic essay represented a certain mid-20th c moment of trying to understand the entire universe in one blow, switching from detail to detail at lightening speed, in much the same way as Derrida, Foucault, and Lefebvre were doing in France. John Stilgoe's essays on landscape, personality, history, and visual culture are one deliberate culmination of that tradition. Richard Sennett's essays on how all of history has oppressed the repressed represent everything broad-brush and paranoid about the same synthetic impulse.

But in the generation after Stilgoe and Sennett, the synthesis vanished. Academic essays became about the details of identity politics on the one hand, on a detailed delimitation of the Enlightenment on the other : which makes sense, all of these movements contributed a rigor that the previous writers had neglected.

People can get art from other places than synthetic essays, and they probably are. Synthetic essays assumed that popular culture and educated culture could both enjoy a swath of beautifully crafted prose and noble ideals. But we know very well that gone are the days when the classes pretended to enjoy the same entertainments, in that late-Victorian orgy of respectability.

I think a very thin sliver elite will continue (does continue) to read McLuhan, Sontag, Jackson, Stilgoe, Allen Bloom, sorting out oall the various possibilities for the ways self and individual can interface with the wealth of material it must perceive. And everyone else reads Camus, Sartre, Arendt, Foucault: which is to say, they look for easy answers, and as Auden would say, in the prison of themselves each almost convinces himself that he is alone. They limit how much of themselves they use to engage the world. They limit how much they sympathize with others. It's a personal strategy for immediate action with limited feedback, and it's appropriate to the majority in an era when the majority is losing power, becoming homogenized, even losing control over its own choices. Don't hate them or pity them for limiting their perceptions to what they can deal with appropriately.

Just how much abuse will you be able to take? There's no way to tell by the first kiss

I write to a good friend: it's true that I'm lonesome. And this is something I keep telling God too. And God keeps on hugging me and saying, Yes, I know, humans are. And then sending me little love-notes. Like the elderly Japanese businessman near Shibuya Station in Tokyo who rushed to me with his umbrella and walked me to the station entrance when the rain broke out and I was in a t-shirt, making my way back to the airport.

Monday, June 13, 2005

Cafe Society

Long evening of repositioning. Everything feels inhuman to me : unneccessary, unbeautiful, damaging. I draw back: and this time, the glass of Leffe in front me beckons me back into a world where there are pedestrians & CEO's & artists all anxious to know other people.

I'm at a cafe pretending to read. A buff, handsome East-Coaster Jew in a hip skull cap reaches over in a laugh to carress the long hair of the leggy blonde in tight black embroidered pants across the table from him. There's a moment of true discomfort, and they both relax against their seats, until he launches into another intellectual front. He talks with his hands and eyes. He's fascinating. He started the rave movement, investing $50, $80,000 at a time, full page ads, ruining the raves, while the mixers and the djs begged him to gp away. He used to have money then but doesn't now. She crosses her arms and leans back and then in. I see that she is eight years younger than he is as she stares back into the warmth of the cafe. I am so glad I'm not with either of them.

Somewhere in between the foreground where I'm writing and the background where this is happening the waiter breaks a glass while cleaning the table. It lies in shards in between us. I almost feel responsible.

Love in India

I got into Bollywood at the insistence of one of my older friends, a woody-allen-look-alike new-yorker atonal-composer with a thing for 1930s musicals, who used to host sing-alongs to Cole Porter piano musings at his dinner parties.

So there we were one day, eating pork buns while he told me about the teary eyes of the Chinese violinist who was performing his pieces, lacing his ironic allusions to tender emotions with lyrics from the Grateful Dead. He claimed that Bollywood was virtually the only form of culture left where the plot compulsively had to tie up all the traditional relationships of individual, lover, and family, in concentric circles of pleasure and happiness. No Bollywood film can end if the mother-in-law still isn't speaking to daughter-in-law, if the grandparents aren't reconciled, if the son hasn't earned his father's approval and the father hasn't gotten over his own old-fashioned ways.

And so, Aaron decided, his New York Jew tribalism prevailed in his love of women from real families and musicals and Indian film in particular. Finishing the pork bun and smearing his fingers on a napkin, he announced that he was breaking up with the clever mathematician he'd been dating, leaving behind expectation and ambition to follow his heart. He had discovered the divergence in their film tastes, and film, weaving together self and society, family and passion, symbolized a level of aesthetic epiphany he could reach in no other way. In a sudden awakening, he knew: he could only ever marry a woman who understood Bollywood.

Friday, June 10, 2005


I was in Thailand with a theory-loving sociologist who wanted a chance to let her mind float away from its mores into the spiritual. She made me read the Celestine Prophecy on the beach and she had her Osho tarot deck with her. We were each drawing a card a day, each morning, more as a meditation technique than a fortune-telling device. I kept drawing cards like 'completion,' 'maturity,' and 'morality,' feeling rather pleased with myself (Danah was drawing 'anxiety,' 'fighting'). Then one morning on Koh Phanong I drew the "Adventure" card and one hour later swam straight into a jellyfish. I was rushed to the hospital by motorboat, motorcycle, speedboat, and ambulanance, doused with morphine for the burns and shock, and spent two days in bedrest, half of my face swollen shut.

When I was going up on morphine after the jellyfish, Danah asked me how I felt. I told her that I had gone out of my body and was sitting on the other side of the boat, where I was so surprised to be able to see myself from the outside that I looked for a camera and imagined taking my own picture so as to remember.

I'm going to paste here a few paragraphs of mad speculation from a letter I wrote soon after to a friend interested in visual culture as a historian, with whom I've previously had many fairly useless conversations about drug culture, spirituality, art, and vision in the contemporary world: useless because I'm not the person to talk to. Visits to the hospital aside, I don't spend time with new-age reading material, and I've never tried drugs.

The visual culture I study is grounded in the built environment on the one hand or previous centuries' spiritualism on the other. But one major question among many people who study contemporary visual culture is how we came to have such a visually intense culture without a way to talk about it: why visual studies departments failed across the country in the 80s and 90s, leaving art history as the only discipline with tools to talk about how people today think about the world around them. Media studies may change that trend, but the historical track is worth noting. In Thailand I necessarily spent a few days thinking about drugs, visual fantasies, and contemporary culture, while my mind floated away on the stream of jellyfish-induced hallucinations.

One friend with whom I was travelling is an apostle of drugs convicted of their ability to unlock different experiences of time and visuality that are accessible to the human mind but usually repressed. So after the morphine experience she spoke to me enthusiastically about her experiences with other chemicals that stimulated similar out-of-body travel. She then began to talk about trance music -- the repetitive throbbing techno music I've hated since it got big my junior year, apologizing to my friends for being so square all along. She described trance as being designed to stimulate a flashback to out-of-body experiences among people wh ohad used acid. Such that she and friends could enter the same mental state as when they had taken the drugs, without the drugs themselves, when listening to the music.

I was especially struck by this articulation of what I always sensed as the eerie exclusiveness of rave culture: that if you don't get it, they have no use for you. And now I wonder if that exclusiveness can be tacked down to a series of cultural assumptions among ravers that would be interesting to review, as follows: 1) humans are spiritual creatures whose nature is to meditate, to expand and contract time, to visualize their spiritual experiences (including visualizing oneself from without in sympathy with other points of view); 2) modern humans can access powerful creative and shared visions (which are part shared fantasy and part spiritual reality) only through drugs, therefore 3) anyone in modern culture who doesn't do drugs doesn't have access to authentic spiritual activity.

This attitude makes much sense of the automatic hostility towards religion one encounters among the same set; the axiomatic dismissal of Christianity as 'mere ritual', a phrase at which I always catching myself laughing: for the anthropologist, everything worth thinking or doing in human history has been structured as ritual, and nothing could be more noble than ackowledging and repeating a continuous tradition of ritual latent in one's culture that still holds the power to transform.

So I wonder about those of us who never did drugs: whether indeed it was really about respect for one's body and one's elders, as the Nancy Reagan literature preached, or because those people had already accomplished access to a spiritual dimension: if they already paid attention to their dreams, wondered about ghosts, and had experiences in church. And so thought of the spiritual world as accessible to them.

For then we'd start thinking about drug experimenters as not inherently disrespectful of their bodies, but radically skeptical about the versions of spiritual traditions that they had inherited. After all, don't we think about those early adopters of drugs as the physicists, the refugee Jewish intellectual, the Marxists -- the very groups most likely to have embraced advanced 19th-century despair towards any return to shared spirituality? I mean that for the existentialist, the only things that can be shared are the material and media forms that Marshall McLuhan called man's external extensions of himself, and of these the aesthetic extensions like clothing or ritual were only too tragically liable to populist political manipulation. But fugitive, illegal, pseudo-scientific expeditions into the unconscious with drugs: these would be shared, and kept private (sacred) from political manipulation by their very irrationality. And if the adventuresome tried on chemicals together and recognized patters in the way individuals experienced time or vision -- from the very basic differences of acceleration and deceleration by different substances to perhaps more significant-seeming patterns of shared visual archetypes in Jungian form -- then surely there seemed to be no limit to how much of the sacred world could be shared if mankind were all to use drugs.

The success of this fantasy among people otherwise so committed to the pluralistic, rational, political sphere of the Enlightenment would depend on setting up drug visions as a special, sacred category in between the political and fully shared (therefore manipulative) and the personal, phenomenal, totally irational unconscious (therefore politically inconsequential). So drugs would be set up as a sphere of limited sharing of fantasies and perception with immense political and personal power: a sphere of art without the politics of aesthetics that threatens to degrade canvases into commodities and propaganda: a sphere of tribal community without national socialism: a sphere appropriate to a spiritual elite bound together by the evanescence, danger, and biological science of the experiment.

I am trying to point to the instability of this construct. Drugs were set up as the key to a political and spiritual Shangrai-la in the 1950s and 60s, a moment when all intellectual history and critical theory seemed to point to despair before mass culture, where no good impulse of charity could bear fruit, where creativity threatened to be outdated, where the future of political individuality was mocked by a dozen Orwells and Huxleys. For any construct to offer a solution in such a climate of despair was marvelous: for drugs to do it depended mainly on modern man's lack of experience with the visual/spiritual frontier on the one hand, and with neurochemistry on the other. Drugs were staged as the golden arrow of politics for the next political generation.

Were drugs legalized, their appeal for this group would surely vanish. For they would be forced to acknowledge all their visions as common as the willingness to enter a shared ritual, all their precious colelctive energy as of the same substance that binds together churches and poets and lovers and conspiracy theorists and theater-goers and consumers of advertising, who with more or less engagement, experience, self-control, or suspcicion share their absorption in the shared visual experience.

The poet, the would-be psychic, the student of English literature who tries to read every other individual without the aid of drugs, is very much in the camp of the romantic liberal -- a misunderstood category in this day of war between romantics and liberals. The romantic liberal (before the tribes split, mid-19th-century) believed in the principle of freedom, not so much the freedom to do anything as the freedom to feel anything.

This freedom is everywhere in peril not so much because of traditional politics or protectionist market strictures as in the fact that man never knows the extent to which he is capable of feeling ifferently. Man is cursed by his own lack of imagination as much as by that of his peers.

The only conceivable solution is a culture awakening of heightened consciousness -- a collecture cultural therapy that can have no end. So this is the French Revolution in Shelley's eyes or the Italian one in Trevelyan's. Both writers hallucinated out of history a human impulse towards immense compassion that had little innately related to the principles of the particular historical revolution in question.

Learning from history would be a matter of not falling back on the Enlightenment or the 1960s to save us. No golden arrow exists: not drugs, not the tearing down of traditional rituals, not their dogmatic protection, not the free market of world religions. Learning from history might be a question of learning to value romantic liberalism -- the freedom to feel anything -- and to apply it as one encounters the future, the past, tradition, and innovation alike. One can feel anything, from isolation to projected unity of spirit, to even -- with application, the thoughts and emotions of another human being. Each of these sentiments has a corresponding visual culture. So if one can take up any of them, which should one take given the politics of the moment? One can feel anything: and one is left then bewilderingly alone with the question, how can one best accomplish right action and sustain right feeling towards the rest of the world? Which visual forms will help us to organize that right now?