Wednesday, August 31, 2005

As it Lies Dying

A solution for the region of Faulkner

I saw a picture on the cover of the Lansing State Journal this morning of a man sitting amidst the wreckage of his coast-front trailer, a dwelling completely disassembled and disjointed by yesterday's Hurrican Katrina. My thought was ' no shit.' He shouldn't be surprised that his home is gone, mostly because homes like his shouldn't exist in the first place, let alone along the Gulf of Mexico in the world's epicenter for hurricanes.

This photograph brings up a number of different issues. The situation is one of place and class, environment and typology. I don't want to get all bluefaced academic, but natural disasters such as the hurricane interest me in the way that people respond to them both pragmatically and in realizing that hometowns and conceptions thereof are suddenly uprooted. Uprootedness is the issue right now in the deep south, as mediaheads talk about rescue efforts and damage estimates and the destruction of entire neighborhoods, their economies, their cultures, their livelihoods, and even (in the hundreds), their residents.

When such an unsustainable wasteland like the Gulf Coast is destroyed, we have a unique opportunity to try again with something better. But despite the guise of planners and the ten-penny theoretician politicos and scruffle-necks, this is a matter of the novel in terms of space but the traditional in terms of ethics; and ethics cannot be avoided, as the philosophy of compassion. Here the presumption enters in my community, that of architects, designers, planners, and spatial visionaries, that the solution to destruction and "rebuilding," as it were, is to 'learn' from the event and 'respond' with a 'strategy' that is uniquely conceived. The thing that makes this presumptuous, however, is that such strategies do not maintain a thorough or stable conception of human compassion, the need for rootedness, and the human geographical, psychological, and ultimately ethical needs to know where one is, why one is, and how one is.

Cities like New Orleans already suffer ethical crises, that is, crises that deal with the interactions of a society between its members. Some would characterize ethics as a realm dealing with 'thick' relationships (family, spouses, best friends) rather than 'thin' relationships (random fellow humans), but I'm convinced somehow that an ethical standard is compelling enough at the thick level to be deeply indicative and complicit with one's interactions at the thin level. That is, if the thick is in check, the thin must be as well, because the disposition required for thick is much more complex and specific than the more basic, fundamental thin disposition.

I've been thinking a lot about the social justice component to space-forging in light of the hurrican in New Orleans. Can you think of any situation today in which housing is built on a large-scale (that of communities) in which socio-economic needs are actually met? We have no experience in this country since before WWII in functional communities being built at such large scales that don't cater to high-end buyers or 'up-scale' developments. I find this fascinating in addition to my interest in ethics as a worldview of compassion (I can't wait to say those words at Harvard) in that the only thing we have to source in our cultural history is the past. The only way that we know of to rebuild New Orleans to the extent that it may require is rebuild it the way it was built the first time around.

But with some exceptions. We know now the unsustainability of sprawl-ish typologies, the effect of freeways and thoroughfares on neighborhoods and socio-economic stratification, and the faux-pas associated with building urban communities that rely on cars (e.g. any metro Detroit 'mile' road, including those through the city). We therefore have the text of the past and the context of our current condition (and the hard work done for us in the form of Katrina) to correct a landscape where people have assembled into a society and be progressive and more responsible while doing it. We know that the high-necked calls in academe for a "progressive" solution to the matter will be unrecognizable and irresponsive to the human condition. The most explicitly appauling and tragic aspect of this disaster is the mass exile that is ensuing, and the government escorting [domestic, citizen] refugees to mass-shelters that's more akin to moments in our history like the Trail of Tears. In both of these examples, we are complicitly engaged with matters of uprootedness and identity and associated with a landscape and the disposition of a culture within that landscape.

And what do you need to be convinced that people OUGHT to be rooted in a conception of 'home' conducive to productive, uplifting, and dignified identities? We need an ethic. And an ethic is not something that the black-clad icons of angst and irrelevancy at places like Harvard (e.g. Rem K and H&DeM) or Michigan (the countless faculty and visitors who have abandoned a conception of the past via accusations of nostalgia and sentimentality, nihilistic modernist shallow-beings that are convinced of the necessity for apathy) have been able to pull off in recent years. I will be enraged and disgusted when the star architects of academe come around with their flaky renderings of their harsh "solutions" to New Orleans, the pseudo-humanitarian competitions where the starchitects of practice and academe pour out their vanities of presumption and cultural, emotional, spiritual, psychological, cognitive, perceptive, and environmental obliviousness, and reinforce it in the shambles of rhetoric and fluff of semantic trends.

It would be paramountally useful for the American story in real and tangible ways evident in all of the areas of architects' obliviousness to which I have just pointed if somebody came forward and presented us with a solution and said "here, I have documented and brought back into our active memory and vocabulary how the communities, neighborhoods, streets, houses, and yards that were lost this week were constructed; and in doing so, I have brought to attention a strategy of rerooting and reconstruction that is economically, socially, physically, and ethically just." Because let's be honest--do the developers of pastiche-amusement-parks-of-memory-pseudo-new-urbanist-quaint-disneyland-lifestyle communities on the suburban fringe know how to build to the New Orleans bungalow from the block? What about a shotgun house? Or for that matter, the Chicago three-flat? or the Midwestern garden apartment?

Nope. Lost from the semantics of space, lost from our active memory, lost in the floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina.

note: Faulkner's title "As I Lay Dying," I take it, uses the simple past form of 'to lie', which is 'lay' (as in "I lay sick all Thursday"), and not the present indicative form, which would be 'I lie.' If the 'lay' had the semantic character of placement and recline, Faulkner would have to have titled the book, in accordance with the grammar of ASE, either "As I Laid Dying" if in the simple past aspect, or "As I Lay Dying" if in the present indicative form. This form and the simple past form of 'to lie' are the same, and one is left to interpret the title vis-a-vis the content of the novel. I have chosen to parallel the title of the novel by entitling my entry "As it Lies Dying" because if I wanted to interpret the condition of New Orleans as having been 'placed' upon it by the exterior forces of the hurricane, and therefore using the verb 'to lay,' I would be required to include a direct object, of which I have none, nor did Faulkner. This note does not take into consideration the semantic specificities of vernacular Mississippian English, nor Faulkner's acknowledged interpretation and representation (whether accurate or fictional) thereof.

Chanson d'installation: Ryan Adams, Sweet Carolina