Another inane blog post about blog posts.

31 May 2009

I have been using a blog aggregator (Google Reader) for the past year or so, and I feel I have settled into the right distribution and quantity of feeds. In the beginning, it was quite anthro heavy, as I continued to entertain anthropology grad school fantasies. After several months, I entered a phase of heavy subscription, following links and hopping from blog to blog in a frenetic race of references and cross references. Of course, the sheer magnitude of posts and the anxiety that came with not being able to read everything served up made this untenable. As of late, however, I have found a comfortable distribution of subjects and a reasonable volume.

The first grouping of blogs (and, though I hate to say it, probably the most instrumental in getting me through the day) are first and foremost collection blogs. Rather than being polemical, chronological, or narrative, they simply (but with great relish) catalogue and collect the shinier pieces of flotsam in the internet sea. Whether devoted to fashion blunders , passive-aggressive notes , or pictures of inanimate objects that happen to look like faces, these posts celebrate the humor and irony that come with the diversity of the internet. They also tend to update most frequently, which appeals to the shorter end of my attention spectrum. The second grouping contains the veteran subscriptions; anthro-centric, polemical, and intellectual. Though some of them do a bit of collecting, they typically do so with analysis and along thematic lines. The posts are fairly long (sometimes extremely so), and often resemble academic articles. I appreciate the depth of thought in them, and they keep me connected to the lines of anthropological thought that so captivated me as an undergrad. The final grouping of blogs are of a slightly different character, and are unified not only by theme but notably by their overall style and approach to their subject matter. Thematically, these blogs deal with architecture, landscape, design,  and anything in between.

The blogs in this latter grouping first caught my eye because they shared some of my more passionate and coherent interests. They also tend to use images effectively, not as stand in for text, but as a narrative component – a recognition that there is something tactile and vivid in architecture and landscape and design that cannot quite be done justice in words (and only very provisionally by images). But most importantly, they engage their topics and frame their inquiries in the same way, and it is this framing, this discursive style, that I want to really discuss.

Fundamentally, these blogs operate in a mode that explores topics not by close research but by imagination and creation. In this way, they operate rather differently than the more academic blogs I mentioned: while the anthro blogs (following standard scientific method) drill into a topic, getting ever deeper into the intricacies of the issue and the internal relationships and processes that underlie it, with the ultimate aim to understand it better and to then (hopefully) inform further action, the design blogs proceed from a phenomenon, idea, or built structure and proceed outward, imagining the thought entity in different contexts, teasing out alternative futures, and manipulating the idea in different ways. It is fundamentally a creative process, and takes cues (often explicitly) from fiction – specifically, science fiction.

Many entries begin with a snippet from the news or a set of images. Context is never too much of a focus; in fact, they generally start in the collector-blog mode, reaching down and grabbing anything that catches their cursory glance. But at some point, they introduce a twist into the situation, asking, “what would happen if…”, or, “imagine the situation if…”. In these instances, the thing or event recounted becomes a springboard to an entirely different matter, worthy of a whole new set of considerations. For example, Alexander Trevi of Pruned recounts a New York Times story about the leaks that have beset the New York City water supply tunnels, and the extraordinary challenge of repairing them. He departs from this already rather quirky story to imagine if the service crew, forced to proceed deeper and deeper through the city’s water network, tending to a never-ending cycle of repair, were to “make camp permanently.

They will live and work inside hyperbaric chambers, They will marry inside submarine cathedrals and synagogues; have children; rear them under compressive, metal-buttressed skies; drop them off to helium filled schools; develop indigenous customs, idioms and myths. They will evolve a new dialect to accommodate their ‘high-pitched squeals.’ Hydroengineering has reconfigured their biology, and so they must adapt.”

And in the ultimate reversal, “They will also die there, with their bodies sent to the surface for burial.” Of course, these scenarios are proffered with a healthy dose of humor, and are often in the mode of reduction ad absurdum.

But as with any good science fiction, the imagining of alternative futures is not done simply to be playful. It is not creativity simply for the sake of creativity; it is a pointed, directed imaginary, intended to evoke attention to an idea or concept through the process of shaking up or recontextualizing. Trevi is exploring hidden or unexplored forms of urbanism (in fact, subterranean living is a surprisingly frequent theme in these blogs. Kind of a recurrent mole-people theme.

Monstruos Aterradores!

I wish a good, conscientious director would remake The Mole People, but really take time to design the mole kingdom, how it would look, how they would harvest their life-sustaining mushroom crops, and so forth). Trevi is also making a point about urban infrastructure; grand and complex systems that are ignored until something goes wrong with them. Based on this and a number of other posts, he has a particular fascination with forgotten and invisible landscapes, and I suspect a bit of frustration at the fact that these ignored landscapes are as laden with history, beauty, and significance as the most picturesque vista, but are nonetheless marginalized as the pursuit of the offbeat dilettante.

In any case, these bloggers make their investigations by recontextualization, as a means to unsettle the current state of affairs and ask an unexpected set of questions. I see a parallel between this kind of investigation and the work done by science fiction writers. I have had a long-standing passion for science fiction, one that has evolved and grown with my other intellectual interests. Truth be told, a lot of science fiction has a rather puerile and highly gendered appeal, taking masturbatory delight in the imaginative details of technology (and often militarism) with little commentary. I feel this is more true of “hard science fiction” (although having attention to scientific detail does not preclude a work from being profound… Robinson’s Mars Trilogy is a case in point, with the character of Ann Clayborn being particularly interesting). It’s a little bit like those inane Monster Machine episodes on TLC that showcase huge machinery without any particular interest in any context about their development, predecessors, or deployment.

But there is some fantastic science fiction that uses this process of recontextualization to ask serious questions about society and the lives we lead. I think this kind of exploration can be found in a number of forms; anthropologists investigate distant cultures and end up unsettling categories of thought they had taken for granted but that end up being quite different on the other side of the world. Historians do so as well, taking seriously the line by L. P. Hartley: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there” (yes, I have used this quote in previous posts, and you will likely find it again in the future). The finest histories, in my humble estimation, are those that attempt to illustrate the conditional and highly historically-contingent natures of the institutions and ideas we take as a given. Finally, there is science fiction, which takes familiar literary trappings – protagonists, antagonists, settings, and plots – and sets them loose in a strange and unexpected set of material conditions. Thus recontextualized, the relationships we might expect as readers are reconfigured and disrupted. An excellent example of this is the work of Ursula LeGuin, whose “Hainish Cycle” books explore themes of gender, sexual identity, anarchism and authority, and ecology (among other themes).  Admittedly, the connection between her writing and anthropology is less than serendipitous… her father was Alfred Kroeber, one of the fathers of American anthropology. In any case, her interlocutors (themselves often filling an anthropological role) explore worlds in which conventions are upturned. In The Left Hand of Darkness, the protagonist encounters a race of hermaphrodites whose sexual politics and customs are determined by the seasonal transformation of gender. In The Dispossessed, we encounter a planet of anarchists, who live in a society ostensibly without coercive authoritarian structures. Even more interestingly, both of these books (and others in the “Hainish Cycle”) are set on harsh planets which challenge the characters. This interplay of environment and culture is a less-noted element of LeGuin’s work, and I think sometimes critics gloss her work as “ecological science fiction” without really dwelling on the rather complicated linkages between these harsh landscapes and the cultures that have evolved in response to them.

The point I am trying (ineptly) to make is that one of the most valuable forms of scientific investigation may in fact arise from creativity, as opposed to hard analysis. Creativity is a way of destabilizing norms, and interrogating some of the more insidious and ingrained conventions that we live by.

This is an uncomfortable notion for a scientific method that prides itself on methodological and analytical rigor. This discomfort is evident in the defenses that Anthropology as a discipline has had to raise against repeated attacks on its rigor and status as a legitimate (social) science. I stand by anthropological method, and I will sing the praises of good science fiction to anyone who will listen. I love the impetus in design to create solutions through imagination.

But, particularly where blogs are concerned, a more cautionary note is in order. There is the risk in these design blogs to give far too much priority to creation, to the detriment of analysis. Part of this may come from the overall format and spirit of blogging – this is a medium that revolves around updating, more akin to a news feed than a scholarly journal (of course, there is probably something to be said for hybridizing these forms, and rehauling the academic publications… but I digress) with the consequence that breadth is prioritized over depth of analysis.

An example of this is Bryan Finoki’s blog Subtopia. Others in the blogosphere commend him as an urban theorist and expert in biopolitics, geopolitics, and militarized space (none of which is ever really defined clearly), and he certainly makes an effort to embody these roles, complete with ponderous postings like “Peripheral Military Urbanism” or “The Spatial Instrumentality of Torture.”  I cautiously agree with the notion that inequality and oppression operate robustly on the spatial plane, and I likewise agree that faith in the ability of design to positively impact the human condition must be tempered with a keen understanding of the propensity for design to amplify suffering. However, in Finoki’s indignant tirades against concepts such as “Carceral” or “Suicidal Urbanism,” there is a startling lack of interest in agency, whether by the victims or the perpetrators. There is a certain self-evidence in the evil that inhabits and animates these spaces and places. Finoki’s process is as follows: he seizes upon a news story or set of images, creatively amplifies them, and evaluates them in the degree to which they embody the monolithic, institutionalized spatial evil that he, thankfully, has the critical insight to see. As example of this is the post “Suicidal Urbanism: The City as IED,” in which Finoki departs from an Oxford study exploring links between an engineering mindset and a propensity for terrorism, and then spirals off in an imaginative scenario in which “Jihadi” engineers and developers create sabotaged cities that turn on their new tenants, acting as colossal IEDs.  I think he is trying to comment on the potentiality of architecture to be weaponized, which is an important departure from the typical discussions of architecture’s ability to help and to heal. But Finoki’s wariness comes more from his imagination than any genuine analytical work. Firstly, I get the sense from the beginning of the post that he didn’t actually read the study he linked to (this is actually emblematic of a recurrent research methodology in which he googles a term or idea, finds a book on Amazon or Google Books that, according to the paragraph review or page excerpt, seems to touch on the issue, and then offers it as research on the matter). Moreover, the use of the term “Jihadi” – which is a made-up word – reflects the lack of concern for the people behind this envisioned architectural evil. It is remarkable how Guantanamo Bay, border fences, and surveillance operate so transparently in their evil, and how easy it is to elide the motives and rationales of the people who operate them. I am no friend of these institutions, but I think it is ultimately a poor analysis that fails to seek out, understand, and interpret these institutions as dynamic and subject to change (whether from without or within).

This is not simply a matter of portraying both sides of an issue, and it is not a call to justify the very serious destruction that these institutions can engender. Nor is it a call for extreme moral relativism, in which an agent’s means are justified by his/her good intentions. But the process of intellectual critique must base itself on more rigorous research methodology – research that is committed to the many perspectives that surround and inform a debate or institution.

I have spent the last few paragraphs throwing stones from the roof of my glass house, and need to draw these ideas to a close. In the blogs that I frequent, many of them do excellent thought work through the process of creative imagination – a process for which I see correlates in science fiction and in anthropology. As exciting an engaging as this process is however, it should not be permitted to stand in for close (dare I suggest enthnographic) research. Perhaps this is more generally true for design, whether industrial, urban, or of any other stripe; imagination is a potent means of interacting with the real, but it cannot stand on its own.


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