historiography

What is our Antiquity?

I often think of TJ Clark's observation that "Modernism is our antiquity. … the forms of representation it originally gave rise to are unreadable." This statement makes clear the way that modernity—the process of the modernizing a world not yet fully modern—is lost to us.

It's hard to tell precisely where the break happened. Is it when Ernest Mandel's late capitalism takes over? Or is it a bit later, when progress has collapsed? After all, it's hard to see the Great Society as a postmodern program. A couple of years later, 1968 is the definitive break: product of the dashed hopes of postwar modernism, an early cry of the culture of overaccumulation, an upheaval toward postmodernity. 
 

Network culture, I would like to suggest—and I think that in his talk on atemporality Bruce Sterling does this as well—has a certain affinity to modernity in that it is not yet complete.

For all the talk of the generation currently entering college being born digital, this simply isn't true yet. My sense is that pervasive locative and mobile technologies as well as the spread of non-computer Internet browsers is necessary for this and they only become everyday with the 2007 launch of the iPhone.

It's at that point, let's say some ten to fifteen years from now—coincidentally a time when we might have recovered from the crisis of overaccumulation that we find ourselves in—that something quite new will come to pass and that world will be as unrecognizable to us as ours will be to it.   

[1]




[1] . T.J. Clark, Farewell to an Idea (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), 3.

 

A Chapter on Atemporality

I've put a revised version of the introduction to my book on network culture together with the first chapter—on atemporality—on my site. I hope you'll be as excited to read this material as I am to post it.

I know that I owe my most readers a few words of explanation about why it took over a year to post a chapter that I had initially thought I'd have up within a couple of months.

First, I had the honor of writing a chapter in Networked: A (Networked) Book on (Networked) Art. As part of this project, I agreed that I wouldn't take the material for the chapter and immediately publish it on my own site. That material, like a lot of the research I  did last year requires substantial reworking to fit the book (little of it is in the first chapter…you'll see it later, in the chapter on poetics).

Second, I've thoroughly rethought the book during the intervening year not once but repeatedly. This is hardly a crisis, but rather the way that I—and many historians—write. Revise again and again as you nibble at unformed parts until everything comes together.

Some of you have asked how the revision process works, so I've left the record on the site, just go to the revisions tab for any section and compare the current version with earlier ones. Of all the revisions, the most significant is a new model of historical succession that I find simply works for network culture. Whereas last year I had some uncertainty about just how this book would be a history, the first chapter—which of course is on history—now makes my strategy of relying on Michel Foucault and Jeffrey Nealon's model of intensification emphatically clear.

Speaking of revisions, make no mistake, there are plenty of rough patches in these chapters. This is, after all, a draft. Don't  read it if you want a finished product. But also don't think you should hold back on your commentary. Whether at Networked or at the other ventures including this one, networked books have largely failed at generating comments. Don't let that stop you. If you see a problem in the text call me out on it wherever you feel appropriate. The more that I can draw on the massive collective intelligence of my readership, the better this project wil be.   

While I'm on the topic of collective intelligence… This first chapter owes much to a dialogue that Bruce Sterling and I have maintained between our blogs (take, for example, Bruce’s discussion of atemporality in his keynote address at Transmediale this year) and on Twitter with many of you. All of the kind attention that this dialogue brought during the first few months of the year makes me think that my attempt to write a history of atemporality is both timely and untimely (in Nietzsche’s sense).

Finally, a word about the book title. It's very much in flux now, but I'm thinking it might be "Life After Networks: A Critical History of Network Culture."   

Braudel on the Event

 “Events are the ephemera of history; they pass across its stage like fireflies, hardly glimpsed before they settle back into darkness and as often as not into oblivion. Every event, however brief, has to be sure a contribution to make, lights up some dark corner or even some wide vista of history. Nor it it only political history which benefits most, for every historical landscape--political, economic, social, even geographical--is illumined by the intermittent flare of the event.”

- Fernand Braudel, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II (New York: Harper Collins, 1973), volume 2, 901.

on distinction

window sill of a train

 

I'm rereading Bruno Latour's We Have Never been Modern. It's time to reload my ammunition and this is part of that job, apologies to everything else that isn't getting done. What's striking me right now about this seventeen-year-old book is that it's predicated on an argument against the modern sense of distinction between spheres. In the intervening period, it seems to me (please feel free to shoot me down …better now than later), the postmodern process of "blurring boundaries" has been made obsolete by a thorough loss of distinction in society and culture. The Enlightenment project of modernity, it seems to me, is increasingly something that our generation cannot even conceive of. 

 

what is your object

In a great post over at a456, Enrique Ramirez extends the conversation that we began here. I have a comment in the queue, so you may want to check back at that URL later. Note also the comment from Enrique in the thread in that conversation as well as David Barrie's response to yesterday's question.

I feel bad that sometimes stuff gets stuck in the comments queue. There's no excuse for it. I really really appreciate all the comments. It's lonely here and they're a big part of why I do this. 

on research, cell phones, and the anthropological model

I'm behind again. The Infrastructural City is back in my lap for more finishing touches on the design so I've been working on that fiercely. One day you'll forgive me. I've also been working on new plans, which will be announced in detail here soon. Interested in a research-based internship on telecommunications and urban life over the summer?* Contact me. 

A week ago the New York Times carried this lengthy article "Can the Cellphone Help End Global Poverty?" focusing on Nokia researcher Jan Chipchase. Jan certainly seems like a fascinating figure doing real important work and I'd love to meet him one day. If you haven't read the article, go do so, now. 

The article also points toward a question I've been wanting to raise for a while: why is anthropology such a dominant model for apprehending contemporary culture? To be sure, anthropologists have long been an avant-garde of research, going out to study the unknown, their work sometimes applied for imperialist or corporate purposes. Anthropology's focus on the individual has also led to a political concern with preserving existing ways of life against the encroachments of top-down power and toward supporting everyday culture. More recently, anthropology has informed some of the best work in science and technology studies, demonstrating the radical transformations in life that are taking place today.

But anthropology is only one mode of understanding behavior and societal change. Sociology is another and has reacted in its own way, most notably by developing social network theory to deal with the vast changes in interpersonal relationships happening as these are maintained beyond simple propinquity.

What of history? To return to last week's theme, why is it that historians have ceded their need to understand the contemporary world to other disciplines? Where is the historiographic innovation needed to understand the contemporary? When will we begin the work on the theories of history necessary for understanding our world?  

This is not a complaint against other disciplines but rather one against my own. Other fields have responded to the changes in the world around us. History is a laggard.

For all of its departures from traditional method, Blue Monday was a first attempt to deal with these conditions from a historical perspective. Watch this space for more. 

 

 

* Disclaimer: Academe, I'm afraid, is a bit of a Franciscan venture or at least such has been my experience. Alas, we don't have any funding, but working at Studio-X is certainly cheaper than going to school and unlike a typical architect's office, I give my interns full credit on work they do and a lot of independence.

 

a historian's manifesto

Last fall Mark Jarzombek sent me his Anti-Pragmatic Manifesto. To me the most critical passage of that insightful piece read as follows:

I predict a new fascination with carelessness, a new tolerance for “whatever” in a “whatever generation” - an architecture that prides itself on neither history nor theory, to put it bluntly. This generation will take over the mantel of the “avant-garde,” and demand that it vacuate itself of purpose and thought.  

At the time Mark asked if I might respond with my own assessment of the status of the discipline of history in architecture. It's been all too long, but here goes. 

I wish I could somehow be optimistic about the state of history, but I'm afraid that I can't be. History is already in a dire condition in the discipline and, as Mark suggests above, may soon wind up even worse off. 

So much of network culture seems to involve the shutting down of institutions created in the Enlightenment: the public sphere seems to have transformed into micro-clusters and micro-constituencies, newspapers are in free-fall collapse, the novel is giving way to a new fascination with realism, traditional markers of distinction seem obsolete. Perhaps then it should be no different for history.

Especially after Hegel, history operated under the principle of historicism, suggesting that an understanding of the past could be a guide for the present day. Whatever we may think about its problems, this gave a purpose to history writing (Manfredo Tafuri referred to this as "operative criticism"), making history vital and real for generations. For architects, key texts such as Nikolaus Pevsner's Pioneers of the Modern Movement or Siegfried Giedion's Space, Time, and Architecture grounded the present in the past.

Teleological in nature, such texts came under justifiable criticism from younger scholars, often bringing with them the anti-historicist methods developed by Karl Popper. But a second, perhaps more modernist meaning to historicism saved history at this point. This new history pointed to the past to suggest appropriate ways of operating within one's own time. Thus, the work of Palladio would be valued as an example of an architect who engaged with the forces around him and wrestled his structures out of that condition while the work of the Futurists could be resurrected in order to prove how banal modernism had become.

This form of historicism had an enemy: postmodernism. When I first went to school, the best historians argued that their work was a bulwark against postmodernism, that a modern approach was still the only appropriate response to the time. Postmodernism, which merely revived antiquated forms, was nothing more than a zombie form of architecture, misunderstanding the work of earlier architects, misusing it, and thereby threatening the legitimacy of the discipline. 

Soon after came the theory wars. As some theorists argued that history was outdated, now the best historians (Mark among them) argued that theory and history were deeply intertwined and that one should both historicize theory and theorize history. Slowly, history and theory reached a rapprochement.

Alas, this was just in time for the rise of computation. In a prescient text in 1992 entitled "Has Theory Displaced History as a Generator of Ideas for Use in the Architectural Studio, or (More Importantly), Why Do Studio Critics Continuously Displace Service Course Specialists?" Stanley Tigerman predicted that as architects began to dabble in history (as a consequence of postmodernism) and, thereafter theory, specialists in history and theory would be displaced from architectural education by more flexible personas who could also teach studio and the all-important new service courses in digital technologies.  

As this happened, historians began to reintrench into their own professional roles. Newly read in critical theory and particularly concerned about the dangers of operative criticism (as this of course could be so easily replaced by practitioners dabbling in theory). Thus empowered, historians turned back to the old process of academic distinction and discipline. No longer would history make pronouncements about the present. Instead, as Ph.D. programs were founded left and right (just what people would do with all these dissertations is a mystery to this writer, who sat jobless for two years in the mid-90s…maybe two or three programs are necessary at most in the entire country), historians turned toward research that would often be tangentially relevant. The handful of historians who did otherwise, can, I'm afraid, be counted on just a few fingers. 

Having turned to purposeful irrelevance, history now finds itself facing death by a thousands cuts. One course here, one course there. As the demands of accreditation grow, history slowly finds itself squeezed into a narrower and narrower slot in the curriculum. 

Simply put, this is a disaster. Our time would make the most bold of Futurists proud. We have little capacity for understanding historically anymore or even for understanding how others understood their times and reacted to their histories. 

I recently asked a historian about why we don't periodize anymore, he basically laughed at me, suggesting that I was naive for asking such a dumb question…after all, we all know periodization is bad, right. But is it? Mark calls for a reinvigoration of a Utopian imagination in architecture. Well what about a similar spirit in history? How about putting away our microhistories for a minute and making broad claims about culture, not just in the past, but today?

I recently observed that there were no more common texts in architecture. Ibelings' Supermodernism was the last one. And if the students and I found flaws in his argument sitting around the table in seminars at SCI_Arc (wasn't that our job after all?), we still recognized it as keenly intelligent, an attempt to explain the architecture and urbanism of that day historically. Operative criticism it was, but it was still a crucial historical argument, a signpost in a foggy field. And if it is outmoded today due to developments in telecommunications, that's fine too. Such is the nature of these kind of projects.

But wait, there are no more signposts in our foggy field. Just fog. And we continue to hurtle through it at breakneck speed. This is not a good condition and with the building boom about to implode, we seem likely to run into a massive pile of debris.  

So let's be naïve. Let's risk our careers. Let's make broad, sweeping observations. Let's make mistakes. Historians need to think big. They need to take stances and even condemn where such a condemnation is due. 

The alternative is more and more about less and less, until finally the accreditors and the administrators pull the plug on our life support system. And at that point, it seems to me, they will have done the right thing.  

connections

While at the bookstore yesterday, I spied a new edition of science historian's James Burke's classic book, Connections. This book, and the accompanying ten episode television series of the same name, is a vivid example of the power of seemingly minor events to change history.

Each episode centers around a small breakthrough that almost inevitably leads to a radical transformation in contemporary life. Initially, these changes appear to have nothing to do with what they lead to (e.g. an innovation in Dutch ships allows plastics to be produced). Although this might seem to be an exercise in a historiography of the accident, it is far from it. Burke's goal is to underscore how the world we live in is not the product of either a single, inexorable march forward or from happy accidents and little guys made good (the Paul Harvey approach) but rather from a complex, network of connections, of individual moments of agency linking together into a larger whole.

Since I bought my iPhone, I have found myself watching more videos on the train to and from the Studio-X space from our Montclair, New Jersey apartment. Today I had the opportunity to watch the Trigger Effect, episode 1 of the series. I don't want to give much away, but you'll soon find out that the series begins at the foot of the World Trade Center. Burke is at his best here and watching this video after 9/11 only underscores the validity of his thesis. I haven't watched Burke's look back at Connections, Re-Connections, but I hope to do so on another ride today or tomorrow. It's worth noting as well that Burke is creating a new project called the Knowledge Web which intends to use the Internet to network Burke's research.

 

 

I enjoyed watching Connections when it was first broadcast on PBS in the 1970s. The show sparked an interest in history and the role of networks in history for me and Robert Sumrell, my partner in AUDC, was similarly struck by the show. Although we should have credited Burke in the acknowledgments, he's on the long list of individuals that we should have credited but didn't. Consciously or not, Blue Monday is very much a product of Burke's method.

This is something important to realize as some readers of Blue Monday have suggested that it is a book about three (or seven) quirky moments and our research into these marginal conditions. Far from it. Much like Burke—or our mentors at the Museum of Jurassic Technology and the Center for Land Use Interpretation—Blue Monday sets out to uncover the complexity and richness of the world from the incidents around us.

Network Culture and Periodization, or, What Era Do We Live In?

I'm putting the finishing touches on the Networked Publics book, including a conclusion reflecting on the phenomenon of network culture that I've outlined here. When that's done, I'll be uploading it as well as the entire book, for comments. 2007 is a year for a number of books and certainly for me to discuss what network culture is in depth on this blog.

For now then, here's a rumination on periodization and network culture. The reviews of an earlier draft of the conclusion generally suggested that the section on periodization needed to be reworked. For now, I've excised it and edited it to stand on its own and am planning to reference this page instead. In a future version of the essay, perhaps it can make its way back in again. I suppose it does say something quite definite about our era that the readers reacted so instinctively against my discussion of periodization.

Yes, history is my discipline and therefore I have a certain bias towards such explanations, but the question of periodization was central to Jameson's essay on postmodernism. Why was it not a problem then when it is now? My hunch is that we're afraid of periodization precisely because it's so absent right now. As I say in the excised excerpt from that essay,

Although modernism and postmodernism relentlessly defined themselves, we just are. Even this decade remains nameless””?is it the 2000s? the ‘00s? Or as the BBC suggested, the “noughties”?

Our collective fear of periodization says a lot about us, and why we are not postmodern. Read on for more and please comment! The captcha system I've put in place is annoying but it takes care of all the spam that was crippling comments for so long.

Johnson Symposium Summary

Archinect's Yale school blogger Enrique sums up the Philip Johnson symposium in an eloquent post. Enrique mentions that the symposium left him feeling "a little creepy." Harrowing might have been the term I would have used. If it was billed as a celebration of Johnson, the symposium was far from that, by no means the kind of pre-digested conference so common in architecture schools. Much praise goes to conference organizers Emmanuel Petit and Robert Stern for not shrinking from debate in organizing the conference.

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