About the Name of this blog

This blog's title refers to a Dani fable recounted by Robert Gardner. The Dani live in the highlands of New Guinea, and at the the time he studied them, they lived in one of the only remaining areas in the world un-colonized by Europeans.

The Dani, who Gardner identifies only as a "Mountain People," in the film "The Dead Birds," have a myth that states there was once a great race between a bird and a snake to determine the lives of human beings. The question that would be decided in this race was, "Should men shed their skins and live forever like snakes, or die like birds?" According to the mythology, the bird won the race, and therefore man must die.

In the spirit of ethnographic analysis, this blog will examine myth, society, culture and architecture, and hopefully examine issues that make us human. As with any ethnography, some of the analysis may be uncomfortable to read, some of it may challenge your preconceptions about the world, but hopefully, all of it will enlighten and inform.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

I Reject Your Reality and Substitute My Own

Dangerous Supplement

Nostalgia is the dangerous supplement for the authentic; it substitutes discourse on the past for the actuality of the present.

First some background.  The dangerous supplement is a concept first presented by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his book "Emile." 

            "How people will cry out against me!  I hear from afar the shouts of that
            false wisdom which is ever dragging us onwards, counting the present as
            nothing, and pursuing without a pause a future which files as we pursue,
            that false wisdom which removes us from our place and never brings us to
            any other."

Basically, the origin of the thought came from his ideas on masturbation, which he termed a dangerous supplement to actual intercourse.  The thought evolved into the concept that writing was the dangerous supplement to speech, which was the primary connection to the intellect of the speaker.  Writing, in Rousseau's philosophy, was removed from direct connection to thoughts, and therefore a poor substitute for the authentic.

In this manner, to reframe Rousseau, nostalgia drags us onward, discounting the potential authenticity of the present, for a false promise of recreating a past that never existed.  

To show how seductive the dangerous supplement is, I was trying to explain my take on this to my friend Patrick, and got frustrated with my own speech and told him to just read this post.  In this case at lease, writing apparently is the dangerous supplement to speech.

On a side note, Derrida would discount this, as he deconstructs the notion of the "real presences," and everything relies on a chain of relationships to create meaning.   To Derrida, there is no such thing as "authentic" or "real" and that all truth is merely interpretation.  This is a subject that I may return to in a future post, but for now I am going to leave this philosophy alone and accept Rousseau's assertion that the authentic can exist.

To return to my point, when we allow nostalgia to become the primary focus of worldview, we substitute it for the potential to create the authentic.  This is because nostalgia is the idea that the past is better than the present and definitely better than the future; our best days are behind us; and if we want to have a glorious future, we have to recreate that great past.  In the nostalgia contrivance, there is no way that the future can be bright unless it is a reboot of the "Golden Age."

Except that "Golden Age," never really existed.

Nostalgia, as I have discussed at length in previous blogs, is a rosy view of a past that never existed.  It is Disneyland's Main Street, sanitized and improved for your pleasure.  Because of this, it turns history into illusion; it makes us feel better, but we are living a lie.

From this, we discount the possibility that anything can be actually authentic.  Because we are living in an artificial construct of nostalgia, we no longer recognize authenticity, and we make ourselves feel better about this inability by saying everything is fake.  We have achieved a parallel what Ellsworth Toohey in "The Fountainhead," strives to do to art by promoting the trite, the incompetent, and the bad.  We have destroyed it by holding up the dangerous supplement of nostalgia.

A case in point is Las Vegas.

Everyone complains about the "fakeness" of Vegas, and it is a complete fake.  But it is so fake that it actually becomes a new authenticity.  It does not strive to conceal it's fakery, like Disney does, it embraces it, it even revels in it.  And because of it's wholehearted embrace of its lack of authenticity, it bends the curve back around to create a new form of reality.  It is authentic by not pretending to be anything but fake.   Disneyland tries to seduce you into suspending your disbelief; Vegas wants you to get drunk on it.  

And that is what I would consider to be the core of the authentic, not to be "real" but to not try to be something other than what it is.

Most modern cities are nothing more than masturbatory fantasies.  Dubai tries to be Hong Kong, Hong Kong tries to be Tokyo, Tokyo tries to be New York City, New York City tries to be London, London tries to be Paris, and everybody wants to be Rome, at least the way we imagine Rome - as the center of a world-spanning empire.

Towns have the same problem, they want to evoke the bucolic world of the gentleman farmer, the naturalist, the landed gentry, all of which fall back to a nostalgic view of how we imagine the pastoral life should be, without the manure and backbreaking labor that are spawned on the farm.  When we think of rural town life, the first word to come to mind is "quaint."

And all of these visions, fueled by nostalgia, not only limit our ability to see the authentic, in many cases they actually cripple our ability to create it.

For example, we model many new developments on the Andres Duany's New Urbanist patterns that he first developed at Seaside in Florida.  The problem is, these patterns are driven by the nostalgic view that 1900 was the best year ever to live in a city.  People sat on their front porches, there were no cars, the grass was green, the sky was blue, and everything was perfect.  That might have been true if you were white, upper middle class and Protestant.  If you were anything else, city life pretty much sucked.  And today, unless you are rich enough to live in a New Urbanist development, life still pretty much sucks.  At least that is the message being fed to you.

To return to my point, because we have allowed a nostalgic view of how cities should look to drive the new developments we build, we do not look at how they actually should be built so that they reflect the current era.  We spend so much time telling people how they should live, that we refuse to examine how they do live.

Another case study is Pessac.  In Pessac, Le Corbusier created a modernist's dream of how medium density, low income worker's houses should look.  The problem was, the people who had to live there hated it.  They hated it so badly that they did whatever they could to personalize the houses, even to the point of basically strapping salvaged building materials to their houses to personalize them.  Le Corbusier was so set on how he wanted people to live, and what he thought they should appreciate, that he would not accept the reality of how the people themselves wanted to live, or their aesthetic concerns.

By putting preconceptions ahead of reality, anything created becomes, by definition, fake.

And this is why I feel that Nostalgia is a dangerous supplement to the authentic; it sings an irresistible siren song that keeps us from looking at the actual reality surrounding us. 

If we don't work with actual reality, we do not create authenticity.  When we don't create authenticity, we lose the ability to believe that anything can be authentic.  When we lose the ability to believe anything can be authentic, we no longer try to create anything authentic.  When we no longer try to create anything authentic, we have to create a nostalgic vision to substitute for the authenticity we lack.

We have become the Ouroboros, devouring ourselves for the want of the authentic.

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