Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Welcome to the Desert of the Theoretical

Normally, I would leave architecture and po-mo philosophers to others like Frank or Jon who take an interest in such things.

However, I've recently decided, being shamed of my ignorance in the noble art of philosophy, to start reading some. First in line was a slim book of essays by Frenchman Jean Baudrillard, The Spirit of Terrorism.

Ideas like his clash with some powerful emotional and intellectual blockages on my part. First, as someone extensively educated in the "inhumanities", I tend to lack much training in the foundations, which is fatal for disciplines in which cross-references and allusion is so important.

Since most of my intellect, when not preoccupied with cooking, films, learning languages, is taken up with with business, economics and politics, I would have a bias against accepting any theories based mainly on the non-material and non-empirical, poetry, novels, drama, visual art or philosophy.

Then, by and large, experience has taught me not to put much trust in theory; if economists, with their vast and sophisticated modelling and testing toolbox produce few useful predictions (and indeed, tend to have problems getting jobs) then why would less empirically-grounded and rigorous disciplines like sociology or cultural studies have much to say.

Also, I carry the conviction, reinforced by long experience in trying to explain complex financial products, that people who cannot write plainly simply are not really thinking. This was enunciated brilliantly by Orwell in his essay Politics and the English Language; if you haven't read this, then you simply cannot consider yourself educated.

It's an unfortunate coincidence that most of this species are political toilet mold, advocating wierd forms of identity struggles or cliched leftism.

Baudrillard talks about the manipulation of images by the terrorists of 9/11 - something of Al-Qaeda's hallmark:
As soon as they combine all the modern resources available to them with this highly sumbolic weapon, everthing changes. The destructive potential is multiplied to infinity. It is this multiplication of factors (which seem irreconcilable to us) that gies them such superiority. The "zero -death strategy, by contrast, the strategy of the "clean" technological war, precisely fails to match up to this transfiguration of "real" power by symbolic power.
However, I think here again, he underemphasises the material effects - the disruption to transport, finance and politics, the grief of 3,000 deaths and the exceptional importance of the most precious symbols of American civic nationalism - its archetypes - are first and foremost its flag and its common understanding of history.

What he is offering is some mildly interesting ideas, but written in the indistinct fairground-mirror imagery of Baudelaire's symbolist poetry or Bob Dylan's lyrics, with no sign of a distinct skeleton of ideas within these words. This was apparent in this passage later on in the book:
The violence of globalisation also involves architecture, and hence the violent protest against it also involves the violent destruction of that architecture. In terms of collective drama, we can say that the horror for the 4,000 victims of dying in those towers was inseperable from the horror of living in them - the horror of living and working in sarcophogai of concrete and steel.
Except for the small matter that normal workdays in the WTC didn't involve choosing between waiting for death as burning jet fuel heats the structural steel of the buildings you stand on red-hot or jumping hundreds of meters to the ground.

I've gone on to Carl Schmitt's famous essay "The Concept of the Political", which comes with an long commentary by Leo Strauss.

I'm enjoying this a lot more, although its much denser, because the wheels and gears of thought are visible, and unlike Monsieur B, they reference other major works extensively, rather than relying on half-remembered television images for their foundations.

I would have finished this sooner, but in a terrible piece of absent-mindedness, I put the book in the dishwasher on Sunday night: Oh my God, I'm turning into Garrett Fitzgerald!