Reject Modernity Embrace Post-Capitalism

Meme using a photo by Edward Burtynsky.

I had an aesthetic/moral/anxiety crisis this month which triggered a case of writers block that just wouldn’t stop. The causal chain of my block had a number of reasons but let’s just say that the feel-good filters we use when navigating this world dropped away for me a bit and I became overwhelmed by the multiple crises we seem to be in right now.

One of those problems is the sorry state of the places we inhabit in what we were all taught is supposed to be an “exceptional” country. I think it’s safe to say that the quality of cities in the U.S. went into a steep decline with the ever expanding sprawl of the latter half of the 20th century. Robin Wall Kimmerer in her book Braiding Sweetgrass quotes a Native elder “The problem with these new people is that they don’t have both feet on the shore. One is still in the boat. They don’t seem to know whether they’re staying or not.”

In our day to day lives we screen out the horror of this rootless landscape. We don’t think anything of navigating a hellscape of cars, concrete, billboards and power lines. Worse, our filters blind us to the suffering of our fellow human beings: the poor, the disadvantaged, refugees, and those suffering from substance abuse and mental illness. These filters, instilled in us Americans through the rhetoric of exceptionalism, also don’t let us see the exploitation and injustice perpetrated in our name around the world.

We live under the spell of a rapacious capitalism that’s a race to the bottom and the aesthetic ugliness that surrounds us is just the visual manifestation of a system that accumulates unfathomable wealth for a few and leaves so many people bedding down every night on the hard concrete.

Perhaps we need a Virgil to guide us through the layers of hell and purgatory we find ourselves in and lift the filters from our eyes. During my period of writers block I kept thinking of writers, artists and film makers who attempt, sometimes successfully and sometimes not, to wake us from sleep walking through this injustice both aesthetic and moral. I thought I’d rattle off a short list of people who aspire to this role, each of whom actually deserves a lengthy blog post of their own.

High Culture Haters
A long line of enemies of modernity has queued for this gig but unfortunately they tend to have a right wing outlook I’m not a fan of. I’m thinking of people like Roger Scruton, Prince Charles, James Howard Kunstler and Trad Architecture Twitter shit posters. The problem with these critics is that they reduce the problem to the moral failings of designers and architects. They conveniently avoid the real elephant in the room which is a capitalist system that seeks to exploit human labor and relationships and every single resource the earth has to offer. In short they are moralists who fail to make a systemic critique.

Michelangelo Antonioni
I just re-watched two of the films of one of my cinematic heroes, Michelangelo Antonioni: Zabriskie Point and The Passenger. The first part of Zabriskie Point takes place in the billboard strewn and ugly Los Angeles of my childhood and even includes a scene at a gun shop just blocks from the house I grew up in. I think what makes these first scenes so compelling is, in addition to the astonishing cinematography, Antonioni’s outsider viewpoint: as a foreigner he can see the things we filter out.

There’s a trajectory in the film from the student revolutionaries at the beginning to the liberatory ending with its discordant Pink Floyd soundtrack over a literal explosion of American consumer goods. Zabriskie Point dates from a period, long before the Marvel dreck we’re stuck with now, when people still thought a movie could change the world. On re-watching Zabriskie Point this year, that final scene sent a shiver down my spine because, let’s just say, I have hope that we’re about to experience its revolutionary potential.

I won’t get into the The Passenger but, in short, it’s a prescient commentary on the post-modern condition of Instagram inauthenticity and you should definitely watch it. The Passenger is the internal landscape to the physical landscape of Zabriskie Point.

Skeleton88

There’s a YouTuber who goes by the name Skeleton88 whose hobby seems to consist of making high res videos with a GoPro mounted on top of a car while driving around Las Vegas and other western U.S. cities. His videos, as bleak as anything in the horror fiction of H. P. Lovecraft or Thomas Ligotti, have no narration or music.

I don’t know Skeleton88’s motivations. Sometimes I think these sorts of videos are about blaming homeless people and sex workers for blight, as if they were at fault for the ugliness of our cities rather than victims of a system that both creates ugliness and fails to take care of people. Perhaps it’s just an oddball hobby, but Skeleton88’s viewpoint, a kind of car top Eye of Sauron, tends to dehumanize. Google Street View has a similar viewpoint.

To get a better lay of the land you have to leave the car and talk to people, otherwise you separate the built environment from the social relations from which it arose. That said, it’s hard to deny the impact of Skeleton88’s videos where a kind of supernatural horror seems to lurk just behind the auto body shop on a bleak Las Vegas boulevard.

Octopolis

Another candidate for our American Virgil goes by the name Optopolis. He tours and live-streams mostly abandoned retail spaces on the outskirts of towns in Wyoming and Colorado. His videos remind me the essays of the land artist Robert Smithson, who wrote about America’s blighted infrastructure as if it was like discovering a Mayan ruin. I had a lot of trouble narrowing down Octopolis’ prodigious output for this blog post. I recommend you spend a mind bending evening binging his work. And if you’d like to know what I was like as a young person, well . . .

Segregation by Design

Segregation by Design is a website and social media project by architect Adam Paul Susaneck that profiles the erasure of African-American neighborhoods in the name of “urban renewal” during the 20th century. In Instagram, Susaneck posts before and after photos showing once thriving neighborhoods turned into the sort of horrific landscape depicted in Skeleton88 and Octopolis’ YouTube videos. The Segregation by Design website takes a systematic approach, showing how redlining and demographics were weaponized to eradicate minority neighborhoods and install freeways and parking lots to benefit suburban white commuters and financial interests. He’s already profiled 12 cites and has a plan to do many more.

We Prefer the Before

We Prefer the Before is an Instagram account that shows the horrific HGTVification of the last decent period of vernacular architecture in this country, those magic years from around 1900 to 1929. Here in my own neighborhood most of the old bungalows have been bungled by house flippers who rip out walls and details and paint everything white, white and white. Chip and Joanna Gaines are, of course, the ring leaders of this dark satanic trend. Not since the Puritan’s iconoclasm have we seen as much architectural detail smashing.

For you, my dear readers sake, I suffered through a few chapters of Chip Gaines’ latest book in an attempt to find some sort of philosophical basis for this madness. It was all about how much he WORKS and then he WORKS SOME MORE and then WORKS EVEN MORE. Chip’s book reminded me of what Mark Fisher had to say in Ghosts of My Life,

Capital demands that we always look busy, even if there’s no work to do. If neoliberalism’s magical voluntarism is to be believed, there are always opportunities to be chased or created; any time not spent hustling and hassling is time wasted. The whole city is forced into a gigantic simulation of activity, a fanaticism of productivism in which nothing much is actually produced, an economy made out of hot air and bland delirium.

Capital demands that we rip out a perfectly good 1920s bathroom and replace it with the latest stream of vomit from Home Depot. And when the lateral wood and diagonal tile go out of fashion in a few years capital demands we rip it out again. The iconoclasm combined with the de-skilling and exploiting an underpaid immigrant workforce inherent in the flipper methodology deserves a longer blog post.

What we need to end this cycle is for David Cronenberg’s to do a horror movie with the Gaines’ as the art directors. Cronenberg has always been interesting to me because he sets his bio-horror films not where you’d expect, say in a dilapidated Victorian house, but rather in our impoverished and sterile modern spaces. Maybe the sight of some bloody lump slithering across the laminate flooring or a blood splattered giant clock, will finally stop the Gaines’ reign of terror.

Tartaria

Of all the critical looks at our current built environment by far the most insane is the small community of people in the Reddit forum r/tartarianarchitecture. These folks seem to believe (like a lot of internet stuff it’s hard to tell if this is one big troll) that a lost Tartar civilization built all the nice pre-WWII buildings and that they are systematically being erased. Tartaria is architectural Qanon. Here’s how journalist Zach Mortice describes this conspiracy theory,

The overall premise is an alternative history. A vast, technologically advanced “Tartarian” empire, emanating from north-central Asia or thereabouts, either influenced or built vast cities and infrastructure all over the world. (Tartaria, or Tartary, though never a coherent empire, was indeed a general term for north-central Asia.) Either via a sudden cataclysm or a steady antagonistic decline — and perhaps as recently as 100 years ago — Tartaria fell. Its great buildings were buried, and its history was erased. After this “great reset,” the few surviving examples of Tartarian architecture were falsely recast as the work of contemporary builders who could never have executed buildings of such grace and beauty, and subjected them to clumsy alterations.

Like a lot of conspiracy theories it seeks a clear and certain explanation for a much more complex history. I’d be into enjoying this conspiracy, as well as the trad architecture fans on Twitter, if it weren’t for the racism and antisemitism that inevitably creeps into this stuff.

Some good news to wrap this up
We may not have found a definitive Virgil for our little tour of hell but, in the midst of my silly little writers block crisis some good things happened here in Los Angeles. A young activist and fellow DSA member, Eunisses Hernandez beat an entrenched incumbent and machine Democrat, Gil Cedillo in a race for city council almost nobody thought she could win. Another candidate and DSA member that I’ve been doing some volunteer work for, Hugo Soto-Martinez, came in nine points ahead of the incumbent Mitch O’Farrell and will head to a runoff in November.

Both Soto-Martinez and Hernandez represent the sort of leaders who understand the connections between poverty and the sorry state of our built environment. We can take care of people and have trees and beautiful public spaces. Give us bread, but give us roses.

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8 Comments

  1. I completely understand your distress at the ugliness of your surroundings and how it is just one symptom of the general deterioration of life. However, sometimes I wonder whether this is really just a “First World Problem” or, to be more accurate, a 21st Century problem.

    I just don’t know how people survived when faced with problems like:

    (1) Is the harvest going to fail? If so, we’ll all starve to death and there is nothing we can do about it.
    (2) Is the pestilence going to strike again this year? If so, fifty percent of us will probably die and there is nothing we can do about it.
    (3) Are the Mongols coming this way? If so, they will kill us all and there is nothing we can do about it.

    I realize the much of the Third World faces these problems today, but I still find it difficult to understand how people could face this level of problem and still continue to live a normal life. Maybe having a religious faith helps. You can convince yourself that everything is progressing as intended by some mysterious plan that you are not meant to understand.

  2. I’m sorry for the cause of your writer’s block, and really happy and hopeful about the good news! There’s no need to apologize for writer’s block though–should you be “busy” blogging?
    Anyway, thank you for the thoughtful reading and links (our expectations of design are strongly tied to badly mangled socioeconomics, equity, and local climate), and for such a succinct critique of the High Culture Haters.

  3. I’m all for the 1920s bathroom:) Some individuals with mobility issues may need some modifications, though, to access the bathtub.
    When I have subjected myself to HGTV, I cringe when one of the future demolitionists exclaims, “It’s a kitchen from the 70s!” Then, they start in with their sledge hammers.
    I won’t get started on Chip and Joanna Gaines. AARGH!!!

    So glad to find new posts from you:)

  4. I’m not sure that the bathroom shown is from the 1920s. It looks much more like 1950s-60s to me. In the 1920s, bathtubs were typically the standalone, claw-foot type. Also, just about the only color you could get for any sanitary fixtures was white.

    In those days, both the kitchen and the bathroom were viewed as strictly utilitarian spaces and not an opportunity to express your fashion sense and/or wealth.

  5. Hi! I don’t follow all your obsessions and rabbitholes, but i have to say your blog is, and has been, a genuine source of interest and pleasure, whenever i visit. So, sending encouragement from my corner of Ireland, in the hopes of giving you heart to keep writing.

    I keep a diary in which i write three pages each time. Sometimes i’m so down, that i almost can’t stand to write out all my gloom. If i chance to look back on it in a month or a year’s time though, i almost always am struck by its balance, humour, and trajectory out of the misery i felt at the time of writing it. This article put me in mind of that.

    • Hi Salisbury–Thanks for the idea and encouragement. Diary is a great suggestion.

  6. I second your comments, Salisbury!
    I have been enduring writer’s block lately, on a project that has been important to me. I can identify with Erik. Maybe we can all encourage each other.

    • Hey Cindy–hope you’re able to get over the block too. I like Salisbury’s diary idea. Setting a time to sit down and write is always a good idea.

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