Last Call at Descartes’ Bar and GrillBy D. W. Sabin for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC
Washington, Connecticut. The urge, some might say mania with which our species has attempted to distance itself from Nature is a defining occupation and it appears to be quickening in this mechanized modern era, despite oft-discussed presumptions of the new “Green” Politics. Though we cannot yet cheat death, we negotiate with it as a matter of course and are forever engaged in the Methodological Skepticism of Cartesian thought. We enthusiastically exult in a brazen presumption that Rational Deductive Thought will somehow finally make the Devil fold in this poker game we have been playing for several hundred years and consequently, through the dualism of our so called “external mind” mankind shall finally become master of all we survey. Cartesian methodical deduction replaces mere perception in this brave new world and we humans……who, according to Descartes were unique in the life of the planet as being the only organism to possess that smoky thing called a “mind”……. will ultimately possess an encompassing intellect to match our insatiable will. Science, this labyrinth of categories and dissection is now revealing it’s inner mysteries at a scale unimaginable just 50 years ago. We are finding that the farther we penetrate into the atomic and sub-atomic …ehh, shall we say: “minutosphere”, the less there is to see until matter vanishes and we are confronted with either the unsettling emptiness of anti-matter or the stark interstices between chains of matter that pass in the void but do not go bump in the night. We long ago began to indulge our insatiable curiosity to know everything we can possibly know about what this world “is”. In the end, at a technological point of climactic penetration, we find an emptiness, a void punctuated by atomic particles afloat in a stellar sea and lacking the abiding domestic pleasures of a home planet. Fancy that my fellow existential travelers, we probe vast scales in search of the secret of life only to find that there is no there, there. The flashing sign on the lonely Micro Motel says “Vacancy”. Pondering this bit of pathos a little more and one arrives at the idea there really just might be something to this “Forbidden Knowledge” idea. Is it any wonder why irony and nihilism are the watchwords of the day, casually tossed off as a fundamental contributor toward everything from fashion to literature, music, painting and the wayward behavior of disaffected youth? At the heart of existence is a great emptiness…..or so the dissecting compulsions of “seeing-is-believing” Cartesian Mechanics would have us acknowledge. I once thought that the modern abstract painters were simply thumbing their noses at tradition and gesticulating with freely associating forms because they were impatient , defiant and wrestling with a noisy sub-conscious. However, it now seems to me that they saw the technological juggernaut for what it was, early after it was gaining steam and in their primitivist , emotive art, the smoke alarm was going off , telling us that things were not all that they might seem. Some may see aggressive confusion in their work, I see a return to and ready embrace of mystery as an answer, rather than a nagging question.
Perhaps it is fighting reductionism with more reductionism to ascribe the ennui and rapine of the age to the scientific method of Rene Descartes. His role as one of the principle architects of the Enlightenment looms large but he alone cannot be tried and convicted for the abuses of the era any more than anyone else might be. After all, the post-Enlightenment scientific revolution has produced incredible benefits in everything from medicine to energy, food productivity and mobility. To a peasant caught in the crossfire between the warring medieval factions of their day, we are as gods of a sort in our magnificently rich mobility. However, in our relentless peering, the scientific compulsion finds us missing the matter for the void and we have developed an addiction of sorts, something I might refer to as a Cartesian Jones.
While we dismiss spirituality as something we cannot measure , we focus our considerable attentions upon things rational, and funny enough, we become more irrational by the year. Our vaunted technology increases in an accelerating manner, largely freed from the pesky confines of Faith and Morality so the fate of the planet and our place within it becomes increasingly questionable and open to a kind of double whammy of nihilism. We cannot escape the nihilism of our technological juggernaut to a state of safety within Nature because Nature appears set to bite back in response to technological excess. So, we opt for a little more of the hair of the dog that bit us and the Cartesian Jones continues apace. The culture steadfastly thinks a continuing application of science will accrue the more beneficent solutions we think we need. Technology, once a means to an end, becomes the End itself and spawns a priesthood of technocrats who worship a technological idol, a kind of Chia Pet Moloch, an all seeing eye and giver of life….yours for $2.99 plus shipping. Concurrently, the technocrat’s drinking partner, the nation-state bureaucracy sets itself the task of creating ever-expanding spheres of influence and operation for the technocrat to exploit in both conflict and peace. Government becomes both our newest spectator sport and our keeper. The machinery of life divides, divides again and re-divides to rapt attention all around. Needless to say, everyone seems too busy to check the bank account to insure we can actually pay for all the things we seem to want to stroke in our hot little hands. But this of course, is where Fiat Money in service to complex mathematics comes in handy. The fact that our rational concoctions of currency require increasing levels of blind faith is but one of the many hilarious aspects of this defiantly rational age.
You can see this Cartesian compulsion anywhere you care to look. The relentless grid of our cities and highways, the circuit board of a computer, the grid of data points in a video screen, the tables, spread sheets and data of statistical analysis, the schedules of our work day…they all conspire to immerse our waking hours in a kind of swamp of structured analytical detention relieved only by the cheap thrills of our role as a consumer within a gigantic apparatus of entertainment. Government, the chief ordering agent of our social construct, accumulates ever-expanding layers of meaning, category and responsibility while we ascribe an almost technological power to it all, thinking more government , like more technology, will solve all the problems of a “hostile” world. All the while, we continue to treat the natural wold as the “other”, our antagonist… the thing we must overcome and control. It has gotten to a point where a significant cross section of humanity self-loathe enough to characterize our species as a cancer, something that is lethal above all else and we assuage this sense of sin against life by creating nature preserves where man can be kept at arms length or better yet, kept out entirely while the rest of the planet is worked over at will. The categorical compulsions of modern artifice insure that we “stay on track” to structure our cognizance in order that we might maintain ourselves as something distinct by virtue of our thought and so nature stubbornly remains “the other”…a thing which must be either overcome or merely tolerated, or perhaps preserved as a romantic museum piece under glass. Nature, like everything else is reduced to a product category that is either trash or treasure and so treated accordingly.
The cheerful modernist abjures any skepticism about this cult of Methodological Skepticism by flinging the old charge of the hair-shirt Luddite at anyone who displays the temerity to question the existing categorical orders. In other words, the skeptic, to be honest in their sentiment must choose an abnegation of technology and retreat backwards to a time more primitive and be happy with it or be known as a fruitless hypocrite. This is but another example of the reductionism inherent to the cult of hyper-technological modernity. As humans, there is simply no escaping the fact that we are remarkable for our technological urges. Beavers may dam rivers, Birds craft elaborate nests, Wasps may make paper apartments and Termites build mud towers but it is humanity that is most able to radically transform the larger environment for our own purposes. Denying this technological urge would be tantamount to denying human life itself. Instead, the proper ordering would be to abandon our fundamental and historical antagonism between man and his environment in order to find a proper outlet for Technology In Nature rather than Technology Against Nature. This is not an altogether new or unique outlook. Fibonacci, the 13th century Italian brought 6th century Asian mathematics to the west with his Fibonacci Sequence, a series of numbers which can express the geometry of an unfurling fern frond or nautilus shell and has an uncanny relationship with the ideal proportions of the Golden Ratio. In the 18th century American West, John Muir spoke of the hustlers and profiteers who besiege any preserve as soon as it is put off limits. He spoke of the critical spiritual need for wilderness and arcadian scenery. After a few days camping with the romantic Scotsman in the crisp air of Yosemite, President Teddy Roosevelt unleashed a torrent of natural preserves across the continent and in so doing, virtually jump-started the modern American environmental movement. This nation is richly ornamented with a public treasure representing the finest aspects of our unsullied continent because of the quiet reverence for all life that Muir represents. Before Muir, Thoreau spoke of the riches attendant to the blending of quiet economy and the everyday natural landscape. In the modern era, an environmental ethos steadily gains steam and in the 1980’s , Benoit Mandelbrot brought the Mandelbrot Set and its fractals to popular recognition. This complex and breathtakingly beautiful mathematics is heir to the work of Fibonacci with seemingly organic and self-similarly repeating forms expressed both mathematically and in almost hallucinogenic computer graphics that are as much a fantastic art as they are mathematics.
Along side the theoretic realm of complex mathematics, practical expressions of a new organic way of thinking is gaining steam in the building professions. The architects Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid are exploring new ground in built form and while spectacular in many ways, these buildings are early explorations and have not as yet hit a stride of popular aesthetic understanding nor, in some instances, an artful interaction with either the ground they occupy or the people they serve. Spectacular and novel in many ways, they remain objects of our fancy, set apart from the landscape in the manner of a traditional monument. A few years ago, the european architect Rem Koolhaas created a student center that is as much a landscape of bent planes and volumes as it is a building at that temple of Cartesian Modernist Architecture, Mies van der Rohe’s Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago. The Spaniard Santiago Calatrava creates buildings and bridges of remarkably organic qualities that employ advanced structural solutions reminiscent of natural form. In the field of site planning and landscape architecture, many new advances in storm drainage and the so-called “Green Roofs and Walls” are adding to the environmental emphasis of that profession’s work. At a recent symposium on naturally dispersed and infiltrating storm water management techniques versus traditionally captured, piped and point-discharged sewerage methods, a Planner from Portland, Oregon revealed that his city has achieved a one time savings of a staggering $58 million dollars by adopting new, low-impact, created wetland surface drainage methods over a 2,000 acre section of their city. This cash windfall did not include the added costs of life cycle repair and maintenance required by traditional sewers nor did they incorporate the expense of maintaining created wetlands but it seems that a remarkable cost savings, with direct benefit to the environment can come by a fundamental re-appraisal of how we deal with something as simple as storm drainage. This idea is of significant importance to our older rust belt cities or towns where infrastructure repairs and combined sewers are a hot topic. Instead of hewing to our old established ways, we might try new methods…methods less contradictory to nature and either enjoy outright dollar savings or, better yet, redirect the significant savings into new investments in our human infrastructure through programs that will unleash a new generation of localist entrepreneurialism. Just as we have set up a contrived schism between nature and man, we have slouched into another contrived schism that pits the individual against their social construct. To join in the current political discussion, one must choose sharply between either individualism or social egalitarianism as if a strong sense of individualism was not a critical requirement for a properly functioning and right ordered society (and, of course, vice versa). Just as we solved one problem by creating another in piping water out of sight, so too have we solved one problem…that of an anarchy of stubborn self-serving individuals by piping the individual out of sight and out of mind …in favor of an increasingly socialized identity that begins to make a pejorative of individualism and self-reliance, thus critically and mortally injuring the social sum.
Unfortunately, hidebound America, habituated to debt and militarism while frozen in the headlights of self-congratulation, she lags behind both Europe and now China in many ways. Looking at a site plan of a new development in China, the Cartesian Grid of orderly development in the form of roadways and buildings presents an obviously man-made layer of habitation that is imposed upon the ground. Next, one finds the more organically arcadian layer of preserved natural corridors and their dendritic surface drainage creating an overlapping pattern that, together with the Cartesian grid of habitation, results in a kind of modified plaid of both ordered rectilinearity and organic, curvilinear naturalism. Residents will simultaneously enjoy both the man-made and intertwined natural landscape in a development that preserves or improves water quality and habitat corridors rather than destroying them. Still, while this new era of site planning accrues both savings and environmental benefit, the habitation and transportation modes remain distinctly Cartesian and essentially apart from the perceived disorder of the natural world. Surely, there is art in the grid and pleasure in the known symmetry of our historic modes of building but in finding rapprochement with nature….technology in nature rather than against nature, we might find an undiscovered province, a new wilderness to tackle and an enriched design vocabulary that we have yet to experience because we have been too long intent upon dissecting our technocentric life into something that is fundamentally at odds with nature. To achieve the reverence for life which may finally realize our vast potential, it is time to seriously re-appraise this Cartesian Jones we have been addicted to and seek to position our cognitive ability as something not apart nor above natural life but profoundly of it….. less dominantly mechanistic, far less balkanized into tribes of socials or independents and most importantly, increasingly spiritual. This new mode is one in favor of a sociable independence that values both technology and tradition, nature and the man-made, the modern and the primitive, our past and the future. With a less proscribed view of civilization that is neither antagonistic nor dismissive toward all other forms of life, we cannot help but to rediscover a far more comprehensive and wide-spread spiritual life than the one we enjoy today.
This new paradigm is perhaps a great and historic opportunity that confronts us as we ponder our competing feelings of love, fear and loathing within this thing called modernity. Proclamations of modernity always seemed so triumphal in my mind, an ingrained presumptuousness of our victory culture where we deem ourselves a triumph, a well-earned and historic culmination that bestows upon our time the honorific “modern”. The past is something we escaped rather than built upon, something to be cast off or trivialized. The twentieth century’s windfall of cheap and abundant energy served to lull us into profligacy and speed while precipitating a sharp break with the past. The predilection of we “moderns” for Cartesian categorization and specialization allowed us to ignore or simply exploit the natural world that was beginning to decay around us even as we explored it to historic depths. Those who seek to parse time and thought into discreet categories and congratulate themselves for their so called post-modern sensibilities have not yet really perceived the irrelevancy of the term “modern”. Consequently we fail to understand what our lives can become should we begin again to order ourselves with and in life rather than apart from or against it. Just as the Mandelbrot Set brilliantly unfolds in self-similar beauty across vast scales, so can a renewed reverence for life inform society across a broad spectrum of disciplines. Most importantly, this re-ordering of priorities is not a matter of abnegation or reduced expectations at all. It is not as though we must give up or abandon the abiding pleasures of Cartesian Order. Renzo Piano’s brilliant new addition to the Chicago Art Institute will quickly disabuse anyone of that silly notion. It is the best kind of classically-based modernism and a veritable symphony of Cartesian Order rendered in exceptionally crafted glass, stone and steel. I trust that we will never abandon the compelling wisdom of the traditional building orders with their human scale and dignified expression of the act of craft. Rather, we will be increasing our pleasures and opportunities within a much fuller life by rediscovering the beneficial tensions and intersections that exist between man, our history and the natural world. An entirely new vocabulary of form and interactions is awaiting discovery.
For over 400 years, we have been on an exploration to define what is different and discreet in life and have been eternally in search of reasons why we are apart from and over the natural world. Now, dimly triumphant, we seek to make nature over in our own image, for our own multifarious and changeable reasons. This skeptical and essentially antagonistic mindset has run us up to the brink on many levels. It is time that we re-order our search toward an ethic of similarity and through this effort, redefine man as a cognitive force of life that is capable of balancing both technos and spirit into a nous that neither fears nor worries about death because we are fully immersed within the unending cosmos we were created to embrace. No longer fearing death, we just might abandon our accelerating lust for cheapening both life and death.
Perhaps the concept is too simple and elegant for our complexiholic, multi-tasking technological sensibilities. Maybe we are destined to speed straight into a mechanistic mouse trap of our own making. Recent research at Stanford University indicates that the young, who have been weaned on this compulsive and repose-averse notion of multi-tasking are exhibiting an erosion in all forms of cognitive function including situational awareness, memory and the ability to change tasks smoothly. Obese in body, we Americans think we can become obese of mind on a junk food diet of revolving door, information age titillation. Spectator nation wants it all, cheap thrills lined up along with alarming portents interspersed with sober workaday demands and all of it in a constantly streaming banner of overlapping information that is of little import to the individual in their essential lives. Distraction is the new concentration. Students refuting the report’s findings speak of how they cannot survive unless they multi-task in their demanding lives and that their diligence will obviously evolve a new ability. Spoken like a true technocrat….. glib and ever convinced about the ultimate good of all technology and confident that evolution works in 16 month cycles or that furthermore, it might actually be prudent to evolve an ability to act as a cognitive sponge within a noise-rich environment.
Me? I think not, therefor I aint. We need to apprehend and cast off the current mindset which is intent upon escaping nature in a mechanical fun house of cascading information and products. Time to rethink this Cartesian Jones. It’s no doubt going to be a hell of a hangover but if there is one thing I learned from many face-offs with a smoky bottle of liquid peat Laphroaig… at a certain juncture, fresh air and sunlight are a lot more invigorating than another pull on the bottle, no matter how organic the distillation.