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.
I have no idea what you are like in person or what voice you’d deliver the things you write here, but in my mind your stuff comes across like a fiery revival preacher. Which is completely awesome – if you had a tent revival, I’d be there in heart beat. Especially if Laphroaig was involved.
Elegantly written and much to chew on here. In its basics, we are to understand that Rene Descartes was an enslaver of mankind and responsible for all the ills of the Modern Age including nihilism, and we would be good to get rid of him and his Cartesian method and thought and go back to the old ways, with some exceptions.
Descartes made his deal with the Church (heart to you, mind to science), to keep the Church out of science so this great and terrible modern world could get aborning and be spared further blind authority such as hindered Galileo and forever tarnished the Church in its relation to observation and the scientific method.
And I would say it was a pretty good bargain–at least Descarte did not end up in prison or burned at the stake. Descartes and his descendants certainly did not oblige modern scientists not to believe in God and practice their faith. I have known a few scientists and they believed in all sorts of things. Newton made great science and also wrote on Revelation.
And I would gainsay further that there are monks and nuns in this world that have crawled out from under their habits to marvel at images provided by the Hubble telescope, which–no thanks to them– set us all to wondering about this grand cosmos we live in.
Just to mention a few things.
Besides pulling out the typical Church v. Science black legends, your post seems to miss D.W.’s substantive points. The fundamental problem with Descartes and the approach of modern science is more to do with an attitude or approach to nature. For pre-modern or pre-Cartesian thinkers, philosophy or science are undertaken with a sense of awe and wonder at the grandeur and mystery of the cosmos. The monk or nun peaking out from under their habit (as you deprecatingly said) is far more likely to have this attitude than the modern laboratory scientist. For Bacon, knowledge is power, for Descartes, it is for the mastery and possession of nature. The monk and nun, in their humility, stand in awe at the night sky. They build telescopes to pear into its depths and explore nature’s infinite intricacies. Under the Cartesian paradigm, the scientist stands with a whip subduing the wild stallion. With libido dominandi, they dissect the objects of their study. They do not examine them as objects of beauty, but as things to control.
As the great philosopher Walter Matthau would have said, “Holy Moly!” I’ve been struggling with Cartesian Jones lately, trying to read and teach Robert Frost to very interesting students. Frost, like Arthur O. Lovejoy, denies that DesCartes was a dualist (certainly not as Aristotle was), which would fit, I think, with your indictment of him. Frost insisted on “endless…things in pairs ordained in everlasting opposition,” a condition for the poet to express if not explain. Architecture seems to me (intuitively) a place where the mean can be expressed as it is in Frost’s poetry. Can you give us a paragraph on an architect who has done this, with a picture?
This is powerful stuff, D.W. Sabin.
I’ve heard rehearsals of Draper’s and White’s profoundly flawed late 19th Century “warfare thesis” you recount quite briefly here, occasionally with reference to the “Cartesian deal” you mention as well. I’ve even sat through an hour long pediatric grand rounds where a psychiatrist blamed his poor reimbusement rates on the Catholic Church, citing said “deal.” What I haven’t been able to find is a primary source as evidence for this presumed transaction. I’m not talking about an intellectual turf contract signed by Descartes and Cardinal Fang of the Inquisition, but some — any — contemporary written source indicating this “deal” was understood by Descartes or representatives of the Church under the terms described. I’m truly interested in knowing if such a document exists and what it reveals about the intellectual atmosphere of the time or if the “Cartesian deal,”like the Columbus-flat earth canard, is a myth invented by self-serving partisans. Please help me if you can.
AML: Monks and nuns build telescopes? What history are we talking about here? As I say, there is much to chew on in this essay. Let’s get the major historical facts right, shall we.
I look at the roof-scape photograph illustrating the beginning of this January’s Architectural Record article on Renzo Piano’s California Academy of Sciences and I see Tolkien’s Middle Earth of Hobbit fame with all the circular opening lights popping up through the seddum planted roof-hills. I also see a convergence of science with nature. Hope springs eternal!
Seeing that Laphroaig bottle turned on its side has caused me severe, perhaps irreparable, emotional distress. You’ll be getting a bill from someone–maybe from Brian, if I can get him
in on the fraudto evaluate me “properly.”
Hudson, do you have a point beyond trotting out some tired old slanders of the Church? N.B. Copernicus was a Catholic priest, as were Piazzi, Secchi and Lemaître (who first proposed the Big Bang), the Vatican has had an observatory for centuries, et cetera. The remark about monks and nuns “crawling out of their habits to look at a telescope” was gratuitous and ignorant.
Brian: You ask a fair question. As far as I know, there was no actual deal and hence no deal document. Nor can I say that Descartes arrived at his famous dualism between the soul and the body as a strategy to outwit the Church. If there had been such a deal, the Church would not have banned his writings during his life time. So the idea of a “Cartesian deal” is a supposition of the relation of D and the C, which is shared by others, as you have noted; a hunch, nothing more than that.
However, it is possible that D was in fact trying to chart a “Church friendly” philosophy to steer clear of a career-, if not, life-ending confrontation with Roman Catholicism. He was very aware of difficulties that Copernicus and Galileo experienced in trying to bring their theories and experiments before the world. There can be no doubt about the intellectual atmosphere of the time. Scholasticism was coming to an end, to be replaced by empirical science, and the Church knew it and did not like it.
Hudson, fourteenth century Franciscan Friar Roger Bacon was pioneer in optics as well as a philosopher. He wasn’t the only one. The Jesuits have always had observatories as well. Monks and nuns have often made telescopes, but that little bit is essentially aside from my main points.
Pax Domini vobiscum,
Actually, just checked, Bacon was thirteenth century.
Not only is your writing very funny (in a good way), you seem to channeling Ellul here (can you teach ME to do that?):
“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.”
As was Muir 19th century..into early 20th and not 18th ….and though “wold” is a nice metaphor for “world”…”.world” it should have been. Though I require an editor for a whole lot more reasons than these, we shall simply start with these.
Laphroaig Deprivation shall not be covered under the Public Option….though any of a number of LBGT related hardships will be wholly covered , as will be “Sticker Shock”. I was once chided by a surveyor who received a bottle of my favorite poison as a gift on his 60th birthday. He explained that I was to no longer give him one if I was going to fondle it in the car in front of his office for twenty minutes, mutter the poetry of Robert Burns, weep uncontrollably and thereby sully the label into a pasty wad . He maintained that while he thoroughly appreciated the sentiments, the spectacle made him nervous. Nervous enough , it would seem, to drink.
As to the rest of you, many thanks as usual, glad to provide a little hardtack to chew …I’l be pondering an architectural reply to Willson and Hudson, the thrust of the argument was a plea against micro-categories with their villains and so Descartes, a happy Catholic to the day he died, is not the reason for the fall of western mankind, Glen Beck is. Well, ok , Madonna and Glen Beck and Walter O’Malley.
“To achieve the reverence for life which may finally realize our vast potential…”
Opps, entered the wrong room. The Utopians are having a love-in.
Now, to the detailed replies..
Steve K. :Me as a revival preacher has brought gales of laughter from many bystanders. Generally, the delivery consists of a treasured LuLu Shriners Fez atop my fulminating head, “el Barbudo loco’s” fringe of facial fur combed into a proper Garibaldini Republican Flourish (over a proper Red Shirt of course) and one hand holding a Milkbone as both arms wave about in the Itralian manner, said Milkbone clutched so at the very least, I can maintain the dog’s rapt attention as everyone else has fled the scene, thoroughly convinced that I am not only a tad odd but unsettling so, and mad to boot. The dog does show an elemental level of gratitude nonetheless, at least until the Milkbone is gone, whereupon it fetches the moldy tennis ball, convinced I am on this earth for its entertainment alone. This is a fact I cannot rightly dispute.
Though the historical record is fairly comprehensive, I think this supposed cold and hot war between Religion and Science is both over-stated and , in the end, quite a waste of time. There has been another schism of sorts that has existed between nature…the purported pagan province and the Judeo-Christian-Islamic religions. I don’t buy it as a basic antagonism between nature and religion so much as a constructed divide, crafted by the mortal leadership or adherents of any religion when they perceive a threat to their political order, rather than a bona fide assault upon their faith. Needless to say, there are degrees to this history, some amply refuting my sentiments. My intent here was not to fan this mock schism but to cast a critical eye upon any intellectual construct when it is taken to levels which defy a trinity of morality/ the spiritual life, logic and the ecology of the planet. As I indicated, trying Decartes now, with what we have learned in the period since his time would be bad form and indicate we are dumber than we look. The current debate between science and religion is another in a long line of similar bouts with idiocy and self-regard where both sides eventually become caricatures of themselves, while erecting dense thickets of time-chewing diversion that achieves nothing at all meaningful aside from a little sardonic theatre.
I have been attempting to come up with a single architect or work that expresses the “mean” between Cartesian and Organic Order and there seems to be no single best representation. Aside from those listed in my essay, there is always Wright’s stunning Falling Water in Bear Run Pennsylvania, his Hanna House @ Stanford, the work of Emilio Ambasz comes to mind, Corbu’s Chapel at Ronchamp, the lovely habitation carved out of rock spires in Cappadocia, the tremendous Pueblo developments and in particular, Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde, Erich Mendelsohn’s Einstein Tower (Einstein reportedly offered a one word tribute: “Organic”), and Gaudi’s work at Sagrada Familia and Parc Guell in Barcelona. However, I don’t believe there is yet a good example of interweaving the organic and Cartesian into a “mean” in this modern era for reasons I will get to later. Interestingly enough, there are perhaps better examples from the so called “Dark Ages”. The Italian Hill Towns come to mind as a superb melding of terrain and human habitation and the Champion of them all , Mont Saint-Michel off the coast of Normandy. These however, were by no means happy interactions with the natural landscape as much as they were fortified redoubts. But in these European villages, we do find a mean between nature and Cartesian order and the commonality is the lack of the automobile age in their genesis. In these towns, one walked, or at most road a mule. The automobile, as much as anything else has made our habitations into fragmented, noisy, nerve-racking…zoned and categorized….. and fumed places. We have defined ourselves by our beast of burden and the automobile remains likely the best representation of our fundamental urges to erect idols. Wonderful mobility we surely gained but we have lost an awful lot in the process.
Le Mont Saint-Michel is for me, the most marvelous evocation of the oft-remarked musical quality of architecture. With the spire crowning the rock and declaring a community of spirit, the tidal action that swings the mood of the place from one of connection to the outer world to temporary if utter isolation…the traveled ways spiraling up the mountain, the interplay between the village and the remaining “natural” landscape…it all works as a musical score, much like the grand Beethoven’s Seventh, which for me, evokes a sweeping landscape tableau. Thinking of Mont St-Michel has led me to remember the remarkable Islamic landscapes and buildings of Grenada, the Alhambra, heir to the history of the Levant, where gardens started in Egypt and saw much Persian reinforcement…the word “paradise”, having its root in the persian word “paridaeza”, their walled enclosures of arcadian pleasure built against the terrible beauty of the desert.
I think what you might take away from this is a basic respect for the car but a remorse for how effectively it has broken the tie that binds us to nature….and a slower, more reflective pace of life. I believe the car has allowed us to outpace our intellectual abilities to a degree…at least as they might relate to crafting optimum places of habitation. The car has also fragmented our existence….and allowed us to building things that we find acceptable only because we are passing them at a speed of 35 mph and so they pass as quickly as they come up.
Thanks very much for introducing me to Ellul. As a bit of a rustic auto-didact, I was unfamiliar with his work and investigating it a little , I find but another reason to shut my mouth for simply repeating what has been said before. Such are the simple pleasures of the uneducated, we can bloviate at will, impervious to the fact that we have yet to enjoy an original idea springing out of that noisy sink of iniquity we insist upon calling a brain.
When attempting tart commentary, one is advised to , at the very least, check one’s spelling so as not to increase the aspect of cheeky imbecility, our national past time . Next time, I’ll try and write something properly negative for you so the prevailing scent of rot is not diminished.
Like clockwork the Elitists, irregardless of ideology, will resort to Form as meaning as if the concept was sacramentalized within it.
“I think what you might take away from this is a basic respect for the car but a remorse for how effectively it has broken the tie that binds us to nature…”
DW, that is a muted response. Extending even a bit of remorse to the 20,000 people who die every week on our world’s roads, I would think that a more appropriate response would be along the lines of – Cars are a flipping disaster that have debased civilization from humanity.
Of course, it is your essay and your call.
Though I enjoy my mobility, I can’t say I would argue with you too strenuously. Needless to say, if you attempted to take my car away, I might get strenuous, under current circumstances, thus revealing a certain pomposity to armchair rhetoric.
GAS, and I suppose Steve K. with his cryptic dittos,
If you are going to register accusations of “Elitism”, you might want to flesh it out a little so we can have at it. There are all kinds of Elitism, one of which is an elitism of cryptic criticism…. of the kind that closes discourse rather than furthering it. It is slothfully unproductive, misleading and intellectually petulant to simply splash a broad brush of obscure dismissiveness . Productive criticism is always preferable.
So, I can only infer from your rudimentary commentary that you believe someone who throws rocks at the prevailing neo-con, neo-liberal neon sign blazing “We’ve got your best interests at heart if only you’ll submit” that advertises the skid row carnival of technocratic globalism to be…. quixotically…. an “Elitist Utopian”.
Obviously you and the other contributors here are blessed with gifts from God of intellect and scholarship. Fine and dandy. But my impression of this place is not so much a front porch but a row of ivory towers. That’s the irony. With all the talk happening up above the folk on the porch can’t hear ya!
So I suppose consigned silence is the more populist route? Your comment is not fully off base to be sure but it pre-supposes that any ideas presented on this site are only aired on this site…and nowhere else, by those participating. A preposterous assumption. Furthermore, calling Academics or others of intellectual bent ‘elitists” is both banal and coarse…obviously they are “elitists”, they attempt to further erudition, learning, the exchange of ideas and, in essence, the betterment of society! Perhaps one should dwell upon the sordid instead ehhh? “Elite” as a pejorative always amuses me. All too frequently , flinging this accusation is the redoubt of the reflexive cynic….a place I know intimately. But, overall… your characterization is made further off the mark by looking at many of the other postings on this site covering everything from Bees to swine wallows, golf course lawn mower repair, love, baseball, localist agriculture, bottoms-up economics, church singing and any of a number of other everyday reveries.
Finally, there is a bit of consigned capitulation in your comment…an assertion that the bulk of people are wholly uninterested in philosophical pursuits and are incurious dolts, habituated to television , cheap beer and resignation. If this aint an “elitist” conceit, I don’t know what is. Pessimism has its many pleasures I know but once in a while, it does a person some good to look out past the Hindu Kush of one’s arsehole and think about better things.
Slow down, Buck. Your assigning many assumed motives on my part from a short comment. Golly, I even said you were blessed and that was fine and dandy.
Hence the request to flesh out quick jabs into a more formidable punch to begin with. As you’ve called me the name of my long lost favorite Black Dog , now in swell dog heaven where steak bones and sweet smelling bitches abound, ole buckethead hisself, Buck, the Talking Dog…he spent his last year in a seedy college house where he developed dog fluency in Nostrand Avenue Brooklynese AND Swiss German due to the surroundings and had many admirers and not a few drinking companions…. I’ll calm down. However, one cannot expect to poke me in the eye and brush this site off without dust being kicked, happily… most of it on myself because dirt is the preferred mantle.
Next time, jest don’t call me a lovefest Utopian dammit.
Duly noted. I believe I now have a pretty good grasp on your temperament.
D.W. I enjoyed your essay very much, and I assure you I have no intention of taking your car away. Nothing would be solved. Cars are a facet of the technocratic addiction your described. Like all addictions, simply removing the ability to get high does nothing to resolve the crisis of spirit that addictions represent, and without addressing the spiritual, relapse is likely. Besides a cold turkey withdrawal would likely be a catastrophe. Car addiction will not be resolved in single a generation.
Descartes spoke of skepticism for that which could not be observed. Later technocrats reduced this to a skepticism of that which could not be measured. Sadly economists have reduced it even further to a skepticism of anything that cannot be measured in money. It has been a decade long journey for me to digest all the observable and see car addiction as a destructive force that makes nuclear weapons look like lawn darts. Pompous armchair rhetoric or not, for me, cars represent the current state-of-the-art when it comes to Cartesian Jones. A Moloch that demands unconscionable sacrifice for the illusion of mobility.
PS there is a typo in the 4th paragraph; I believe you meant “world” and not “wold”.
My ellipsis was a trailing off remark, helpfully added right there at the end of GAS’ comments, because I was sure he had a more interesting point coming at some point, and was hoping that he might share it with us. Which seems to have taken place now. Sorry for the confusion!
I don’t even have a good grasp on my temperament but any attempt at divining that quagmire is appreciated. The Dog Barks and once in a while, one needs to throw a large bovine thigh bone directly at its head to shut it up. Mostly though, and this may be surprising, there is a look of bemusement of the kind dogs display whence dangling their head and tongue out a car window, taking in the scents of the day at ramming speed.
rex, thanks yes, there was that typo…an interesting one…almost Freudian as they say, for the fact that “Wold” is a nice metaphor or simile for “world”
Any confusion is on my part, having no sense of this aborning internet abreviational semiotics or whatchmacallits.
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