Tuesday, December 16, 2008


A Buddhist periodical interviews Christopher Alexander, the iconoclastic architect and architecture theorist. His ideas about building and beauty, derived, as he describes it, from empirical observation, have had an interesting side-effect: he has formulated a theology. (Some have said his magnum opus, The Nature of Order, culminates in a new proof of the existence of God. I can't afford the $300 investment in the 4-volume work, so I can't vouch for how convincing it is, beyond what's in this interview.)

In the prologue to Nature of Order, Alexander talks about his starting point:

Then someone asked me, How did you come up with the pattern language [his first book, a list of aesthetic principles]? How did you get the actual material?

I said, "Well, it was not very different from any other kind of science. My colleagues and I made observations, looked to see what worked, studied it, tried to distill out the essentials, and wrote them down."

"But," I went on, "we did do one thing differently. We assumed from the beginning that everything was based on the real nature of human feeling and -- this is the unusual part -- that human feeling is mostly the same, mostly the same in every person... So from the very beginning, when we made the pattern language, we concentrated on that fact, and concentrated on that part of human experience and feeling where out feeling is all the same. That is what the pattern language is -- a record of that stuff in us, which belongs to the ninety percent of our feeling, where our feelings are all the same."

Alexander's core principle at that time, from what I can tell, was "life"--a property that he said can be found and felt in artworks and buildings and inanimate nature. The pattern language was a delineation of elements that contribute to the property of "life" in architecture and design. In the interview, Alexander maps out his next step, when he realized the concept of the pattern language needed more:
I made my first full-blown pattern language about 1967. For a long time, I was of the opinion that if you just could embed these patterns in a building, then most of this would come out right. But quite a lot of people starting using A Pattern Language, and some of them sent me pictures of what they had done. I realized that there was something fairly drastic wrong. It was almost like a sort of variant of hippie architecture that had these various clumpy bits and pieces. They corresponded to patterns in the book, indeed. But very often the whole thing was quite graceless and lacked tranquility entirely. So I thought, Well, good heavens, if that’s the best we can get with the pattern language, I really better think again about what’s going on.

So what was missing?

It had to do with the Whole and whether things can be aligned with the Whole and unfolded from it. At Harvard, when I was doing research for my Ph.D., I spent a lot of time in the anthropology department, simply trying to find out what it was that people in all the so-called primitive societies had been doing when they built their buildings. Most of these buildings were, at their best, beautiful, and at the very least, harmless. They were building in a way that helped what I call unfolding—that was almost a given. People wanted to revere the earth, revere God, and maintain the Whole. And that is not the motive now.

Yet it is the Wholeness that binds things together. My own experience as a builder is that you cannot do this unfolding unless you do it as an act of worship. Craftspeople, ancient and modern, know a tremendous amount about this. If you’re not steeped in that entity, if you really don’t think about it or don’t believe in a version of it, then when somebody says, Okay, now build me this motel, you’ve got absolutely nothing to go on.

If people think something ought to be a certain shape and then they start making it that shape instead of doing what the unfolding tells them to do, they will royally screw it up.

I find this angle of thought fascinating, because it sounds theoretical, but is actually very practical. I suspect a lot of Zen and other Buddhist thinking contains this quality. In fact, this is all very much akin to the thrust of ideas in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (which I reread recently), despite the fact that the book admits to having nothing to do with Zen, really. In ZAMM, Robert Pirsig attempts to solve modern (1970s) man's ambivalent relationship to technology. People recognize the benefit of technology, but they can't help but feel trapped by it, or feel like enemies of it. They take a trip to the wilderness to "escape" their technological world. They don't want to understand technology--they want it to work flawlessly and invisibly and then get out of their way. At the same time, they'd never give it up.

Pirsig cuts this Gordian knot with a concept of "Quality"--something pretty much indefinable (a weakness of his argument; he equates it with the "Tao," which is similar), except in that it precedes the whole structure of subject and object. That is, perceiving Quality ("experiencing" is probably a better word) is not a matter of a person observing the goodness of an object. Rather, the goodness occurs at the point of intersection of the person and the thing. The goodness or wholeness of the thing is shared by the state of mind of the person.

Yes, very theoretical-sounding. But Pirsig is pretty good about explaining the practical side of this. With motorcycle maintenance as his model, he shows how bringing a thing to a state of Quality--fixing a motorcycle--requires not just certain physical motions, or even certain intellectual steps, but requires the mechanic to inhabit the machine, to think about the purposes and conceptual structure of the motorcycle, and to allow the machine's state of fixed-ness to coincide with his peace of mind.

Alexander started with the question of What is Beauty? Pirsig started with What is Quality? There really is no difference. Alexander wanted to know what gave a building simultaneous vitality and comfort. Pirsig wanted to know how we know something is good even though we can't really define what "good" is. Both arrived at a kind of organic science. Pirsig calls it a melding--or transcendence--of "classical" knowledge (logic) and "romantic" knowledge (feeling). Both Pirsig and Alexander refer to their Ultimate Things (Quality and Wholeness) as equivalent to God, and I don't think from a more traditional Judeo-Christian perspective this is too inappropriate.

Regardless, in my limited experience with the "creative process" (ugh, a terrible term), there's a lot of extremely practical advice here. And it's refreshing to see some practical advice that also has some solid metaphysical underpinning. To me, that's pretty much the opposite of an ideology, and ideology is what's ruining politics and art in equal measures for the last century or so. It's what I find so satisfying about the Catholic Church's doctrine at its best, as well. Alexander's thought has influenced the discipline of software design--a highly practical field--and he's got some big interdisciplinary endeavors on his plate:

I’m part of a mathematical and computer science group at the University of York that is attempting to write algorithms for morphogenesis, or what in this interview we have been calling unfolding [the development, through growth and differentiation of form and structure]. I am concerned with trying to find a way where morphogenesis can find its way into the working world. I really have as my long-distance target the desire to create a basis from which humankind can build and rebuild a beautiful world.

Godspeed and good luck, sir!

Friday, October 3, 2008

A Tale of Two Chains

In a post over on LiveJournal, I quoted approvingly of George Will who said, essentially, "What no one will say is that we, the average person, are substantially to blame for the financial crisis because we wanted our illusion of prosperity at no cost."

Friends walrusjester and ng_nighthawk have responded by saying:
But the lenders, not the would-be homeowners, are the ones who start that snowball a-rolling. Lenders don't offer "exotic financial instruments" because people are begging to have them, but in hopes of making a profit by manipulating them. Lots of people had a hand in this crisis, but it started because lenders wanted to increase their profits by offering loans to people who were at greater risk of being unable to pay. A larger share of the blame does belong to the lenders than to the lendees. -- walrusjester

I agree with this. I'd also say lending institutions offer an easier "correctional chokepoint" (if you follow my made-up terminology there) than trying to make people more fiscally conservative in their lifestyle choices. -- ng_nighthawk

In response let me first point out that neither George Will nor I had exculpated lenders. We have merely tried to say what in the public square has gone unsaid and is unlikely to be said, for obvious reasons (how unfortunate that this junk hits during an election!). So, sure, many lenders knew they were playing a role in a crazy system, and they thought they could profit from it.

But if the lenders--the ones in the middle, anyway, who made deals directly with homebuyers--thought they were taking advantage of anyone, it was the big banks above them who were willing to buy any of these loans, or pieces of them, no matter how risky they were. There was indeed a demand for "exotic financial instruments," not from below, but from above. And, of course, there was demand for bigger houses for less money (this quarter, if not next) from below.

I don't have any issue with putting new sanity checks into the lending system in the form of new regulations. I question why we think this will make any difference other than a temporary and delusory one. We all seem to agree that there's a chain of causality here. And the lenders are just one link in the middle of that chain.

I should mention, my understanding of the housing situation comes from listening to this excellent piece of financial journalism, and what I take away from it is that the world is awash in money--money that wants to do something. Specifically, make more money. So we patch up the housing situation, but the fact is that housing, as an investment, is already ruined and will probably only be getting worse. The money out there still wants to be invested, and it's going to find another avenue of beating the obvious markets out there. If we think government can be more nimble or more perceptive than the financial market, we're fooling ourselves.

So, sure, clamping down on lending practices is easy, but is it effective? Only in a limited sense. Can we put other restraints on the "giant pool of money"? Theoretically, but, again, that money's going to go somewhere. If it weren't for inscrutable global financial markets, it might just end up investing in inscrutable military adventures--I don't even know how to speculate on that. What I do know is that at the opposite end of that chain from the "giant pool of money" is us, regular people, and crucially, in this context, our appetites. If we don't learn to moderate and restrain those appetites, then we will remain the fuel for the giant pool of money's future investments. If we don't correct our culture of abstraction, where our homes are just "investments" and our vocations are just "jobs" and our property is just numbers in a computer, then we will be satisfied to be cogs as long as we are cogs with neat stuff. Frankly, we're so deep in this global economic game that we can't escape it in any substantial way. Pragmatically speaking, we're stuck, which is why we're lucky that virtue (which is what we're talking about here when we're talking about restraining appetites) is its own reward, and is a capacity which can never be stolen.

Which is not to say there isn't hope for the future. Because there is another chain: At the top is us. People. And cascading down to the bottom are all those institutions--corporations, governments, hedge funds, global markets. They're all run by people. And just as the demand trickles down from the giant pool of money to us, so the virtue might, if we learn to value it again, trickle down to all those institutions. Many might turn out to be incompatible with virtue, and they will fade away. Probably the whole system would change, become smaller and saner. But if this hope is feasible, it doesn't start with the lenders, the bad actors, or the government. It begins with us, and it begins with our souls.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Trees and Poetry

My dad, though he would be quick to deny it, was a wise man by today's standards (when wisdom is misunderstood and little valued). His wisdom resided mainly in his ability to admit what he didn't know and what he lacked. More and more, at the age of 32, I find myself remembering and sympathizing with wistful comments he made when he was 60. "I wish I knew more about trees," he told me once. And in recent years I've found myself thinking the same thing. I don't know how to take care of the trees that surround our house; most of them I couldn't even identify by species. There's a blue spruce in our back yard... and I think I know which one it is. There's an apple tree, growing wild like a malignant tumor, that dares me to tame it. Two maple trees of some kind clinging to life. And... some other... stuff.

So I appreciate Alan Jacob's shamed reflection on trees. Shame, I think, is an appropriate emotion to feel at our insoucience and inattentiveness to these True Kings of the vegetable kingdom. (We, of course, are their counterparts, the sometimes absent kings of the animal kingdom--don't let anyone imply otherwise, saying that it's insects or something. Only democracy-obsessed moderns would so severely misunderstand the nature of monarchy.)

I've often thought (recently, anyway) that a forgetfulness of trees is one of the symptoms--if not a full-blown syndrome--of the disease that afflicts contemporary poetry, in which too many poets can blabber incessantly about their own bodies, their own feelings, their own "identities," and can't shake a stick at the natural knowledge of even Industrial Age poets. Yes, of course, we everyone must write about the world he lives in. When our poetry is evidence that we live in a world of narcissism, this isn't much of an excuse. (Ah, Narcissus! A great vegetative metaphor for an eternal human scourge. Where art thou, Ovid?)

Some of my favorite new musicians have charmed me with their felicity for botanical details. Iron & Wine's Sam Beam, especially, seems to be a guy with an real, honestly earned knowledge of plants; not that I'm even remotely qualified to evaluate such things, but his descriptions of raspberry leaves, bougainvillea, or the "oak tree and its resurrection fern" certainly surprised me with their authentic sound. He just might know what he's talking about, which is one thing that makes his lyrics so impressive. Josh Ritter is no naturalist, but he has at least looked at trees long enough to know their metaphoric power--"The whole world was looking to get drowned / Trees were a fist shaking themselves at the clouds"--and he can describe a box made of myrtle wood, and in a context that takes advantage of its classical implications. We should revoke the license to practice poetry of any ignoramus who can't at the very least name the plants he sees out his window. (I promise to practice this policy personally.)

Saturday, June 7, 2008

For Mary, on Art and Architecture

I want to respond at length about the importance of aesthetics, art, and architecture in any attempt to recapture life on a human scale--a topic inquired about in comments to my last big post. But work prevents me. Until then, here are two articles:

More Roger Scruton, on the topic of "New Urbanist" Leon Krier and his critique of modernist architecture; and

A post on an interesting urban life/peak oil blog outlining why aesthetics cannot be just a matter of taste, including a brief outline of another important personage in the field, Christopher Alexander.

Bonus: I found this discussion between Alexander and the well-regarded modern architect Peter Eisenman to be quite revealing about what the project of modern architecture is. But it takes some digging through a rather aclectic conversation to get to the meat of it.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Conservative Conservation

"[E]nvironmentalism," says philosopher Roger Scruton, "is the quintessential conservative cause, the most vivid instance in the world as we know it, of that partnership between the dead, the living and the unborn, which Burke defended as the conservative archetype."

Scruton makes three major points to support this declaration. First, environmental devastation often finds its source, not its solution, in large-government policies. His most convincing example is the post-WWII road-building subsidies that made America a nation of suburbs. This mind-bogglingly gigantic--yet simultaneously taken-for-granted--project has shaped American society in profound ways and, it can be argued, often for the worse.

Personally, I find myself even more swayed by the example of light pollution. For what promotes the washing out of our starry skies except the state-sponsored notion that every place where one of its citizen might walk must be equally over-lit? That the poor deserve the luxury of obliterating, like the wealthy and decadent, the natural swaddling of night that returns us, perforce, to our homes and our families? Scruton leads us to ask an overlooked question: Can a liberal state's natural drive for maximal progress coupled with maximal equality do anything but exaggerate harm done by the technological elite?

One can quibble and protest against Scruton's barrage of criticism of "leftists"--I think he characterizes left-environmentalism accurately ("Environmentalism is something you join, and for many young people it has the quasi-redemptive and identity-bestowing character of the twentieth-century revolutions."), but doesn't give its deeper thinkers enough credit for diagnosing some of the pathologies of our age. But Scruton's own diagnosis, outlined in his other two points, is incisive as well: The state (much less any meta-state institution like the U.N.) cannot directly shepherd forth any environmental progress because it has no loyalties to a particular environment. At best it has only cold interests. Protecting national parks is like hoarding a precious jewel; the motivation is fear of losing a resource or source of prestige, or having it monopolized, not love of a place. By banishing residents from such places, traditional conservatives would argue, you banish the love that could protect and nurture it. Instead of inhabitants, you create visitors--or, more descriptively, sightseers--who look, then leave, and rarely love, in any permanent sense.

So, to those two other points, Scruton's solutions: the love of beauty and the love of home. We should be honest and note that concerns of aesthetics and of patriotism have clearly been--if often quietly and subtextually--primarily the purview of a certain brand of (frequently British) traditional conservativism, over and against the progressive utilitarianism and artistic cynicism of the left. But drawing battle lines does little good and, if conservatives' arguments are correct, should not matter because these concerns are ones that all men share by their nature. We may have many cultural confusions about "patriotism," but only the most hardened universalist can feel ambivalent about the street where he grew up or the schools he attended.

Scruton identifies love of beauty and home as those "motives that keep people in real and reciprocal relation with each other, whether here and now, or across the generations." That is, they are human concerns--concerns for that ridge or that pond, as opposed to the state's concern for the integrity of oceanic currents, statistical fish stock levels, or parts per million of some heavy metal.

"Think Globally, Act Locally" goes the slogan, but Scruton here is saying that thinking globally is already a misstep. Certainly environmental problems are often global ones. But how do you motivate anyone to care about a global problem? The unfortunate answer to this question is found in the typical modus operandi of the liberal environmental movement: Tell them that eventually the devastation will reach them; make them feel guilty for their miniscule participation in a massive catastrophe.

The alternative to these appeals to self-preservation are appeals to love and service. The alternative to feelings of guilt are feelings of obligation and duty. It is not true to say that most people are incapable of acting on such impulses, for they act out of love and service everyday in their dealings with family, friends, and neighbors. They act out of duty and obligation in the care they take of their home, their yard or garden, or their school. It's not impossible to "think globally," but in a very real sense, it is impossible to know globally. And if one cannot know something intimately, one cannot love it. We see this in the difference between patriotism and nationalism: One's patriotism can only be extended to those things he is close enough to to know intimately; nationalism appeals to an idea, an artifact of the mind, a unified body--the idealized nation--that isn't in reality unified at all.

If something is to be loved, it doesn't just need to be near, it needs to be concrete. It must be able to evoke our admiration or awe through the senses, not manufacture it in our minds with words or concepts. It must, in short, be beautiful. Here is the value of art, of (to use a less slippery word) craftsmanship: To enhance our environment to be something more lovable, not by painting over or obscuring its natural qualities, but by complementing them. In this notion is highlighted the absurdity of the modern art museum--the place made for art, instead of the place made by and with art. Highlighted as well is the awesome importance of architecture, understood as a discipline of integration and harmonization, not of escapism or novelization, nor of shock and alienation.

Surely any solution to an oncoming environmental disaster is far-fetched and fundamentally desperate. Is shepherding forth a global international technocratic movement to impose a sustainable lifestyle in America, Europe, China, India, etc. any less far-fetched than appealing to individuals' love of their individual surroundings, asking them to change their lives because the changes will bring them back to their homes, out of cars and planes, away from distant workplaces, down from theoretical images of prosperity to concrete visions of beauty? Scruton--and I--think not. "[W]ith really big issues, you need to think small." And smaller is beautifuller.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

One Culture, One Demise

Patrick Deneen, a Really Smart Guy (tm), turns in a jam-packed post about monocultures.

He covers monoculturation (?) in agriculture, economics, and education. Of course, there's monoculturization in culture, too. Interestingly, one of my most fondly remembered LJ posts of yesteryear had me pining for a kind of monoculture (as Dr. Tectonic termed it) in aesthetics, specifically pop music. Is media one area where we are fragmenting and not consolidating? Or is the mushy, here-one-day-forgotten-tomorrow mass of popular music itself becoming one very complex and shallow monoculture?

My pining may have been (or may have more recently turned into) less a pining for a monoculture on some national or civilizational level, than a desire for art to once again be some kind of community-level glue instead of a confrontational medium for "expressing one's individuality." Well, I'll stick by that for now, anyway.

Monday, April 21, 2008

The Virtues of Greenness

This nicely written Michael Pollan appeal certainly hooked me by leading off with a subject dear to my conservative heart. Yes, I can forgive a little Al Gore worship in exchange for some strong Virtue-talk. I know, predictable, coming from the guy who summarized an entire book on the subject a year and a half ago.

It's unfortunate that Pollan's defense of virtue flags at the end of the piece, but that's what I'm here for--to help him carry his cargo into port. The article starts with the question "Why bother?" That is, why should we put so much effort into (as the faddish vocabulary has it) "reducing our carbon footprint" when, put frankly, we can't make a damn bit of difference? Hey, that's a good question, and Pollan at least implies at the outset that the answer might be "virtue."

I forgive him for all but dropping virtue by the end of the piece--after all, virtue as a paradigm gets the same reaction in our public discourse as a corpse slung over one's shoulder. You're carrying that thing? So, okay, Mr. Pollan, drop the corpse and get back to the kind of talk that makes people nod in agreement--good old utilitarianism. Speculate on some utopian scenarios even you admit are unlikely: maybe our example will light the way for hosts of others; "consciousness will change"; I could be the next Vaclav Havel. One way or another, let's delude ourselves into thinking that our personal behavior will change the world.

Your first answer was best, Mr. Pollan. And you know it, because there was that whole diversion into the sour fruits of specialization in the middle of your piece, which flowers into this little beauty near the end:

Still more valuable are the habits of mind that growing a little of your own food can yield. You quickly learn that you need not be dependent on specialists to provide for yourself — that your body is still good for something and may actually be enlisted in its own support... At least in this one corner of your yard and life, you will have begun to heal the split between what you think and what you do, to commingle your identities as consumer and producer and citizen.

"Habits of mind." There's Aristotle's definition of Virtue.

Why bother with virtue? Well, for one thing, it's an activity that is just as at home in good times as in bad. Riding in our collective handbasket, the temperature getting hotter and hotter, one can still persist in doing the right thing, consequences (and all the rest of it) be damned. All a consequentialist can do is stare bleakly at said consequences with all their inevitability. It's precisely the anti-utilitarian quality of virtue ethics that make it useful in times of oncoming disaster, from the collapse of civilization to darkening days in a concentration camp.

Another wonderful aspect of virtue is that it's not a tut-tutting, finger-wagging sort of morality. It doesn't set a bar and tell you the point of your life is to clear it or else. ("Get that footprint below 5 tons or you're a planet killer!") The goal is excellence, a destination forever in front of us. The achievement is not getting there, but just taking a step or two toward it. Why bother? Because at the end of the day--or at the End of Days--look at what you accomplished!

Finally, virtue is the brightest path out of our global darkness because it actually leads toward a light. Utilitarianism wants to lead us back into gray clouds; it avoids the Great Nothingness only because the Great Muddle has a touch more... somethingness. Mr. Pollan may or may not see it this way, but he can't help but recognize that what all morality comes down to is a question of Human Nature. Why bother breaking out of consumerism? Could it be because we are not mere consumers?! There really is no other answer, but the answer requires swallowing a pill that our narrow modern throats find to be awfully big: We human beings have an identifiable nature. We have an environment in which we flourish, a scale within which we were meant to live, a field of view beyond which our senses cannot penetrate, and a destiny that outstrips any reduction such as "consumerism."

Perhaps Mr. Pollan could finally shed his utopian optimism with the help of someone like G.K. Chesterton who wrote as well about the growing of things:

The man who makes an orchard where there has been a field, who owns the orchard and decides to whom it shall descend, does also enjoy the taste of apples; and let us hope, also, the taste of cider. But he is doing smething very much grander, and ultimately more gratifying, than merely eating an apple. He is imposing his will upon the world in the manner of the charter given him by the will of God; he is asserting that his soul is his own, and does not belong to the Orchard Survey Department, or the chief Trust in the Apple Trade. But he is also doing something which was implicit in all the most ancient religions of the earth; in those great panoramas of pageantry and ritual that followed the order of the seasons in China or Babylonia; he is worshipping the fruitfulness of the world.

Funny, "worship" is another thing that serves us equally well in times of darkness and of light.

There's an element of virtue ethics that I've left unaddressed--one that does somewhat resonate with Mr. Pollan's burbling about "setting an example" and societal cascades like those that overthrew communism in Poland--and that's the communal aspect of virtue. But there will be plenty of time for that. Doomsday is coming and I'm in no hurry.