Archive for January, 2010

After Postmodernism

Monday, January 25th, 2010

Today The Straight Torquer presents a guest post from friend and fellow blogger A.J. Aronstein of Theoretically So.  He has some cogent thoughts about Architecture’s role in divining a way forward through the floating debris of post-modern critique.  I am encouraged by the optimism that aethsetitians could play a role in guiding the creation of political and social philosophy.  What do you think of his assertion that art and architecture can show us a future of harmony in a globalized world?  What would such a future look like?


Guest Post follows:


It might be jumping the gun to consider the twentieth anniversary of Fredric Jameson’s The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. But for members of any field of aesthetics—architecture, visual arts, music, literature—a reconsideration of Jameson’s seminal work may prove helpful to orienting ourselves to the evolving political and ethical concerns of our contemporary moment. I intend this commentary to be an opening up of Jameson’s chief concerns, and am especially interested in the proliferation of cross-disciplinary responses to several questions: Is postmodernism over? What are the stakes of establishing a new set of aesthetic practices that adequately addresses the concerns of postmodernism? And of course: Who cares?

Working within Jameson’s theoretical framework provides some possible answers, while presenting a new set of problems for our generation of professionals in fields of aesthetics.

Jameson describes postmodernism not as a set of aesthetic practices, but as a cultural product of history. It is the aesthetic mode appropriate to late capitalism. In a moment of unconstrained accumulation, financial capital replaces industrial capital: Credit Default Swaps and Toxic Assets replace Ford Model-T’s.  Here, it seems important to emphasize that Jameson sees himself as an heir to Theodor Adorno, operating within a Marxist framework that grapples with the implications of alienated labor for the human subject. The industrial capital of modernity introduced the working class to the idea of the fetishized commodity. Late capitalism takes another leap, further removing the human laborer from the product of one’s labor, which for Jameson leads to further disorienting of the subject.

For the visual arts, this produces an emphasis on the reproducibility of images for consumption in global markets rather than singularity or particularity of high art (in his essay, Warhol versus Van Gogh; or in a more exaggerated register Damien Hirst versus Picasso).  For literature, it means an evolution of forms of linguistic wordplay, improbable plots, and impossible coincidences that aim at aesthetic euphoria—rather than the moralizing or ethical lessons of “properly historical” novels in the realist tradition. The viewer or reader experiences a kind of ecstasy in this sensory overload. In the absence of calls to a responsibility to find deep meaning, we can luxuriate in the depthlessness of images that have no final significance.

In the case of architecture, Jameson turns to the Hotel Bonaventure in Los Angeles, applying his abstract idea of free-floating signifiers to physical experience in a built environment. The Bonaventure, he argues, rejects the urban fabric. The glass surfaces of the building push away (by reflecting) the surrounding environment, offering the promise of a self-contained city of shops, restaurants, entertainment facilities, and offices. The problem with the space is its disorientation of visitors. Within the cavernous lobby, it becomes impossible to find bearings—to create what Jameson refers to as a cognitive map of the space, by which individuals could establish a sense of where they fit into the context of the building. The Bonaventure mimics the experience of living in the postmodern moment, in which we cannot find ourselves within a context of cultural signifiers. Rather than lament the loss of our grounding in principles of morality or ethics, we revel in a kind of amniotic fluid—blissfully unable to conceive of ourselves as situated in a single position.

But is this still the case? Are we still reproducing a sense of placelessness in our art, literature, and buildings?

We live in a moment of hyper-capitalism, but the historical and economic context of Jameson’s book seems long gone. In this sense, we might already be post-postmodern (as unsatisfying as this term may be, let’s keep it for now). The structures of financial capital have been shaken to the core in the past three years. In a phrase borrowed from Slavoj Zizek (by way of The Matrix), the financial meltdown forced us to witness the “Desert of the Real.” Economic collapse aside, we inhabit the continually unfolding reality of the War on Terror, which has overturned our conceptions of everyday life in urban environments, altering the way we travel as individuals and exchange ideas, ideologies and capital as nations. At the time of Jameson’s writing (the fall of the Berlin Wall), the post-Cold War world seemed headed for unfettered globalization—where markets could indefinitely measure out steady growth.

We can’t afford the euphoria of placelessness anymore. There are underwear bombers and polar bears on drifting glaciers.

In response to a new contemporary moment, architectural praxis has found ethical roots in a combination of environmentalism and a reconsideration of the urban environment. In this way, architecture leads the way in the positive formulation of an aesthetic for the period after postmodernism.

In literary and visual art studies, contemporary critics focus on the human body and its relation to a hyper-technologized society. Professors asking, “What is posthumanism?” circulate the halls of humanities departments. But what if the moment after postmodernism offers a chance to engage in aesthetic practice that grows out of codes that depend on some sort of individual ethical and political responsibility? Or, some kind of accountability to create lived environments and aesthetic works that re-engage with the question of what it means to be a human subject in the first place?

The stakes? Postmodernity is often caricatured as a moment of moral relativism, quotation, citation, doublespeak, triple speak, nonsensicalness. If academics, practitioners of aesthetics, and professionals in architecture can push the ball forward, it will be through a revision of humanist principles based on the lessons of globalization and projects of identity politics. Art won’t save the world any time soon, but aesthetic practice can shape a politics of individuality grounded in the social world, and in work that attends to interactions in a globalized sociality.

Brilliant People Who Have Interesting Things To Say:

Giorgio Agamben. “What is the Contemporary?” in What is an Apparatus? Palo Alto: Stanford, 2009.

Marc Auge. Non-places: An Introduction to Supermodernity, second edition. London: Verso, 2008.

Patrick Hayden and Chamsy El-Ojeili, ed. Globalization and Utopia: Critical Essays. London: Palgrave, 2009.

Fredric Jameson. The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke, 1991.

Charles Jencks. Critical Modernism: Where is Post-modernism Going? London: Wiley, 2007.

Embassy of Finland

Sunday, January 17th, 2010

The Finnish Embassy on Massachusetts Avenue was designed by Heikkinen-Komonen in 1994 and is an emblem of Scandinavian design.  It is an elegant example of utilitarian minimalism utilizing raw unfinished materials to achieve a refined and poetic composition.  The un-ordained granite walls on the East and West of the building rely on the material’s own natural luster for there beauty.  The North and South walls are constructed of glass and translucent glass block with an integrated steel grid supporting the growth of vines that act as a regulating system for solar exposure and heat gain.

The building was meant to be a clear statement of Finnish identity and is considered by Architectural Review to be the “best new building in Washington in the past 50 years.”  For some background, look up the work of twentieth century modernist Finnish architect Alvar Aalto, who has richly influenced the architecture of the region.

For interior shots, see this post: