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.

Weekend Linkages: I Looked at Twitter So You Don’t Have To

Yes, someone once thought this was a good idea. Via @skepteis.

Where’s the herd immunity? Our research shows why Covid is still wreaking havoc

The farmers restoring Hawaii’s ancient food forests that once fed an island

Council member’s emails show inconsistencies with stance against bike lanes

My neighbor’s dog smells the chicken I’m grilling

They still make nice new buildings

A thread on eco-fascism

cats CAN’T have a little salami

You can visit Mt. Wilson!

Editors note: new post coming tomorrow, God willing.

Growing Pink Oyster Mushrooms

Since this winter I’ve been experimenting with growing edible mushrooms both indoors and outdoors. Recently, I joined forces with a few other interested folks to attempt a technique called PF Tek that we learned about in a class taught by Peter McCoy. We grew oyster mushrooms, the Angelyne of fungi.

Growing oyster mushrooms is a four step process:

  1. Harvest spores or clone tissue and grow out in a petri dish. This must be done in a sterile environment, usually with a laminar flow hood. I have not tried this yet and it’s the most difficult part of growing mushrooms. Thankfully you can skip this step by purchasing liquid culture online.
  2. Take your liquid culture and inoculate grain, in mason jars, sterilized in a pressure canner. Someone in our little growing group purchased the liquid culture for around $10 for a syringe that was more than enough to inoculate 14 pint jars .
  3. When the grain in the jars is fully colonized, you use it to inoculate bags of straw that have been pasteurized in hot water. I think we ended up with something like 16 small bags of straw divided between our group.
  4. Keep the bags inoculated in step 3 in a humid environment with some indirect light and wait for them to fruit.

This all sounds a lot harder than it actually was. Oyster mushrooms have a reputation for easily out-competing molds that can tank other mushrooms. The culture we used in step 2 aggressively colonized the grain (we used sorghum bird seed called milo) as well as the straw. If anything the problem I had is that it went faster than I expected. Once the jars are colonized you have to move the grain to straw. Nature has a tendency not to care about human schedules.

Hot Pink Results
Some observations from this last experiment. We chose pink oyster mushrooms because they tolerate heat and will grow well at this time of year here in sunny and hot Southern California. I can report that, despite what some have told me, pink oyster mushrooms are delicious and do, in fact, have a vague ham or bacon flavor. While they lose their vibrant pink color when you heat them, they are still a colorful yellow hue after cooking.

So far I’ve grown pearl, blue and pink oyster mushrooms. My favorite for flavor and texture was the pearl oyster but the other two are a very close second. I’m going to grow pink oyster mushrooms again soon and like that you can grow them here in the summer.

I need to improve step 4. The difficulty with getting mushrooms to fruit is that they benefit from humidity and oxygen–you can’t just put them in a bag with no ventilation. While I’ve grown mushrooms outside without any kind of humidity control, I think I’d get bigger mushrooms with some kind of fruiting chamber. A lot of people make what’s called a Martha, named after a Martha Stewart mini greenhouse. I’m of two minds about this kind of thing. I’d like slightly better results but also like to avoid gadgets and plastic. But with three successful growing experiments, I’m leaning towards the Martha.

I might try growing pink oyster mushrooms on the oak sawdust I generate in my woodshop. I grew blue oyster on sawdust and I found it easier to work with than the straw. Straw has to be shredded and I found it hard to pre-moisten and pasteurize. With the sawdust I just poured boiling water over it in a tote and let it cool overnight. But I’ve also heard some say that oyster mushrooms grow better on straw. I guess I need to do a side by side experiment and find out.

While it was handy to have an outdoor area to shred the straw, one of the things I like about growing mushrooms is that you can do it in an apartment. I’ll also add that it was fun to do it with a group of friends. We got together to do the pressure canner step together and I was able to use my backyard to shred straw for the folks who didn’t have outdoor space.