Tuesday, November 13, 2007

A Surfeit of Plethoras

Blubberland by Elizabeth Farrelly, UNSW Press, 2007

Somewhere in Elizabeth Farrelly's Blubberland, there's a good essay on architecture and urban design struggling to get out. It first shows itself in this passage on sustainability and the city:
If we were ... to design a green settlement-pattern from scratch, the product would not be suburbia, or urban villages, or Greek fishing towns or even, say, Barcelona. Itwould be Manhattan. Manhattan – or something like it – is the greenest city on earth...
This surprising assertion is actually substantiated with a few impressive facts – Manhattanites' high use of public transport and low rate of carbon dioxide production (7.1 tonnes per person per year vs a US wide average of 24.5). It's followed by a couple of pages of lucid argument that might actually convince you that “Cities benefit nature by keeping us out of it” and that inner city living might offer more interest than suburbia.

The first sentence of the Introduction – where Farrelly's argument starts – is a beaut: “Want used to mean need.” That's an interesting claimand, as it happens, true. The thought isexpanded over the rest of the first paragraph, but the second sentence is enough to indicate where it's going:
Want was life or death stuff, as in 'the lad wants feeding', 'the horse wants putting down'.
Later (in Chapter 1) Farrelly declares that this shift in the meaning of the word “want” occurred recently – within a century or so since Dickens' time. There's a precise term for claims like these – one that Farrelly herself is acquainted with. That's a topic I'll return to later.

“Blubberland” is where we'll find blubber; blubber is:
... the world of vast, glittering malls and dreary look-at-me suburbs intersprsed with limitless acreage of concrete, asphalt and billboards ... cashed up pension funds forcing their market-driven conservatism across the the corporate world, terrified women with silicone breasts and plastic relationships locked into the fearful luxury of gated communities ... dead-hearted towns with 'their grilles and burger joints, litter and their obese, sportswear-clad, snarling crop-haired families yoked in greed and hatred ... (p 10)
[and their]

... sweaty mindless oafs from Kettering and Boventry in their cloth caps and their cardigans and their transistor radios and their 'Sunday Mirrors', complaining about the tea... (Monty Python, 1972)

In short, “Blubberland” is our modern consumer society – where we want too much of the wrong things - things we don't really need - at great cost to our own well-being and to our environment.

Why we want so much, and so wrongly – why we “miswant” - is the subject of Chapter 1 “Desire body: wanting it, all, now”. Here, Farrelly explores the nature of the nature of human desire, drawing on a wide range of thinkers in a various academic disciplines and other fields, starting with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones. From there, Farrelly moves on to canvas the opinion of William Irvine (the first of 4 philosophers cited in the chapter), then a quick survey of the place of desire in drama, literature and legend (George Lucas' Star Wars saga, Thackeray's Vanity Fair, Melville's Moby Dick and the Story of Siddhartha) before moving on to the evolution of human desire. From there it's no big jump to take a look at the findings of psychiatry and psychology, starting with the opinions of John Schumacher (the first of 10 psychologists, including Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman).

Farrelly's survey includes religious sources too – the Zen Buddhist tradition, St Augustine, Star Trek and the Vedic Scriptures.

In all, there are somewhere between 50 and 60 references to the works of thinkers who have preceded Farrelly in examining the subject of human desire. These are dealt with in all the depth and detail you could reasonably expect from an author who takes on the task of producing a synthesis of so many varied sources in 23 pages.

In Chapter 2, “Beauty and the struggle for power over death”, Farrelly opens up a deep vein of self-contradiction that runs through the rest of the book. In this chapter, Farrelly's aim is to convince the reader to put aside the commonplace, pleb-in-the-street view - “Beauty mate? It's in the eye of the beholder, innit?” - and recognise the truth (and beauty) of Keats' dictum “Beauty is truth, truth beauty”. Or, failing that, at least that objective standards of beauty exist.

First she sets out to establish that our culture has generally shared, consensual, ideas of what is beautiful:

Picasso's Boy with a Pipe which sold in 2004 for US$104 million, is worth all those millions only because it satisfies some unwritten but still largely consensual code of the beautiful. Otherwise it'd be trash; some obscure personal treasure of the artist's great grand-nephew's daughter-in-law. (p 43)
Unfortunately Farrelly's examples and arguments support the pleb-in-the-street view of beauty, rather than Keats'. If, as Farrelly later asserts, beauty is as objective as truth, the artistic merits of Boy with a Pipe don't depend on its sale price or who owns it.

Picasso scores two later mentions in the book. In Chapter 3, “Against beauty: the search for honesty through ugliness”, Picasso is cited as an example of how modernist painters turned their backs on beauty and sought truth in its opposite:
After the fuss about Manet's Olympia, too beautiful to be a whore, Toulouse-Lautrec and Degas made headlines by painting prostitutes and ballerinas without trying to perfect them. A century later Picasso, who greatly admired Degas' 'pig-faced-whores', developed his armpit-test for real painting. 'Is this woman real?' Picasso demanded of his friend Georges Braque. 'Could she go out into the street? Is she a woman or a picture? Do her armpits smell?' (p 62)
Finally, on page 73:
Arthur Koestler recounts an anecdote of a woman who, finding her favourite Picasso print to be in fact an original, promotes it from staircase to drawing room. When queried, she insists that her judgement was revised on strictly aesthetic grounds...
How does a writer get from offering the inflated auction price of a Picasso painting to outright derision of Picasso a mere 19 pages later? Wilfully bad argument, that's how.

Farrelly's style of argument is scrupulously consistent with her attitude to “modernism” - it's a big bad thing that has ruined the visual arts, architecture and a slew of other things. The one thing worse than modernism is post-modernism. One of modernism's besetting sins – as we're told repeatedly – is its insistence on classification, distinctions and specialisation. We think too much like Aristotle. Farrelly's response is to think as little like Aristotle as possible.

If “modernist” artists have betrayed their calling, and culture, by turning away from giving us inspiring depictions of generic beauty – leaving beauty to the fashion industry and Hollywood - who is left to serve the truth that is beauty and vice versa?

How about - architects:
Twist and turn as one might, there's no way around the fact that architects, by and large, are the last remaining beauty professionals. Beauty is about the only territory that architecture hasn't relinquished to other, more predatory professions. Beauty is the only thing that no one else does. (p 54)
That's another questionable assertion that will be repeated later in the book, more than once, with a signal lack of supporting argument or evidence – just a lot of hyperbole, mixed metaphor, name dropping and idea dropping.

All this is accompanied by the frequent sound of exploding petards, as in Farrelly's exposition of the sixteenth century Japanese concept of wabi-sabi, an aesthetic idea “loosely associated with Zen Buddhism, that some see as the next big thing in Western misappropriation of Eastern ideas” (p 64). Over the next three pages Farrelly stakes her claim to a position in the vanguard – sorry, avant-gard – of the misappropriators.

I remarked earlier that there is a precise term for claims like Farrelly's claim that the meaning of the word “want” has shifted dramatically. That term is provided by philosopher Harry G Frankfurt, cited by Farrelly on page 112 of the book (bang goes another petard): bullshit.

Ignore all of the books rhetorical blubber - the bombast, the grotesquely mixed metaphors and the hilariously inept and easily lampooned imagery that Farrelly offers as a surrogate for the intellectual muscle of real argument - and it quickly becomes obvious that Farrelly has no coherent idea of what she wants to say, how to say it and more to the point, how to convince the reader. This leaves her in the position of Frankfurt's bullshitter who “while not necessarily lying, wishes to get away with something, something 'not for real'”.

Is it true, for example, that “want” and “need” were once synonymous but that a dramatic shift in the meaning of the former has occurred since Dickens' time? The first part is true – want and need did once mean the same thing. But the divergence of meaning occurred well before Dickens' time. According to the 2000 edition of Chambers' Dictionary of Etymology, the first recorded usage of “want” to mean desire, or wish for, was in 1706; its first use to mean something desired in 1578.

Mean-spirited smart-arsed nitpicking? Perhaps – but it's the willingness to casually mix fact and falsehood that makes a bullshitter.

Farrelly's opening declaration that “Want used to mean need” is the mirror image of the modern economist's declaration that there is no such thing as a “need”. For economics there are only wants; “needs” are just wants that are felt particularly intensely. In both cases, a commonplace and useful – though often imprecise - distinction is being effaced – that between the things we must have (as a plant must have water and sunlight to grow) and things that we can do without.

When economists efface this distinction, the result is often enough sophistical arguments about whether people really need clean drinking water. According to a lot of health workers, and aid agencies, the answer is yes – otherwise you get epidemics of enteric disease such as typhoid and cholera. To the economist the answer has to be no – unclean drinking water is an inferior substitute to clean drinking water. If people choose to drink unclean water it's because they have weighed up all their other choices and decided that avoiding the risk of cholera and typhoid isn't worth what it would cost them, in money or effort, to obtain clean drinking water.

At least economists know what they're doing when they reduce needs to very intense wants; and while there are sophists who use that reduction to produce arguments like the one in the previous paragraph, there are plenty of economists who recognise that the reduction isn't always valid. Farrelly effaces the distinction to no purpose at all – unless you count confusing yourself so that you can go on to confuse the reader as purposeful.

Farrelly's inflated claim that architects are the last remaining beauty professionals is obviously false. She offers no grounds for rejecting, as beauty professionals landscape designers and gardeners, cosmetic surgeons or professional artists who persist in painting traditional subjects, such as nudes, landscapes and still life, in way that doesn't set out to be irredeemably ugly. In fact, she offers stronger grounds for rejecting it, in a two page meditation on why architects no longer wear bow-ties (pp 55-56).

What's left, after we have cleaned away all the blubber and bullshit? Bald statements of opinion, masquerading as statements of fact. McMansions are ugly and visually illiterate. All the beautiful buildings of all the great civilisations were created by architects with a professional understanding of the nature of beauty and its power for good, working with enlightened clients. That the profession of architecture is the last bastion of beauty preservation in a decadent and degenerate age.

Despite Farrelly's occasional protestations that she's a pleb, just like you and me, she is, in fact an unmitigated intellectual and social snob. Her intellectual snobbery reveals itself in the self-consciously casual name and idea dropping throughout the book; the social snobbery in phrasing her “man-in-the-street” (my pleb-in-the-street) quotes in fluent literary Cockney and that “architect + enlightened client = beauty” thing. Her snobbery leads, finally, to the baldly anti-democratic declaration that opens Chapter 8 “Why so ugly? Archiphobia and the politics of Blubberland”:
Democracy, despite having generated the most fertile cultures of modern times and the most successful economies ever, may yet prove an own goal. Not only are its cities extraordinarily unlovely ... but its societies suddenly seem as incapable of real adaptation as were the Easter Islanders ...
Here Farrelly moves on, in a dangerous fashion, to posit that “democracy + personal freedom = ugliness, overconsumption, social and environmental collapse”. Farrelly will no doubt protest that she loves democracy, despite its evident flaws, but such protestations are already hollowed out by her stark division of the populus into two groups – architects, the last defenders of beauty in our built environment, and everybody else – the non-creative garbage who live in McMansions, and the creative garbage who debase art by making it ugly. It's an attitude that's already been thoroughly lampooned, once again by Monty Python in their 1970 “Architect Sketch”.

Later in chapter eight, Farrelly declares “There is ... a level at which architecture is and must be its own judge and jury”. Like hell, there is, if the result is the building of beautifully designed slaughter-houses when the client just wanted a simple block of flats.

The worst feature of this book is not that so much of Farrelly's argument is self-contradictory and self-defeating. If she had confined her friendly fire to her own feet, little harm would be done – except to Farrelly's reputation as a writer and critic. However much of her intense pique at “Blubberland” is justified on environmentalist grounds - “Blubberland” is eating up our environment. According to Farrelly, democracy is ill-equipeed to deal with this problem.

Where does that leave us, if we want beautiful urbanity and an environmentally sustainable future? Farrelly shirks spelling it out, but the only conclusion that's tenable, if we accept her premises on how and why democracy cannot adapt to environmental crises, is an undemocratic one – autocratic rule by a philosopher king, perhaps, with an enlightened understanding of architecture and urban planning. Farrelly is openly dismissive of the capacity of elected politicians and democratic consultation to deliver the goods.

Global warming denialists and conservative blowhards who rail against the evils of “enviro-fascism” will welcome this book as a godsend.

Postscript: there's a lot of editing and rewriting I could do on this piece and still not get it right. I'm sick and tired of the mess of confusion, self-contradiction and hyperbole that is Blubberland.

(Cross-posted at Larvatus Prodeo in exile)

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