Last week, “On Political Temperament,” a piece by architect and Yale professor Keller Easterling on The Double Negative website, made the rounds on Twitter, eliciting, as things on Twitter do, many reactions. Broadly, Easterling’s argument—which is written in the mostly inscrutable jargon of post–Frankfurt School, postmodern critical architecture theory—is at its best, most generous reading, as follows: Politics are currently polarized. This creates volatility and the potential for violence in the public realm. The form of political messages matters. Sometimes that form is violence, which is bad. Not everything has to be binary.
Who this argument is for, other than potential buyers of her forthcoming book, is unclear. But certainly there is a great pressure and desire now for architects to engage in some way with the current political moment. Unfortunately for them/us, the tools historically proffered by architecture schools are not sufficient for our times. The U.S. has entered a new political moment. People are increasingly exploited, and therefore increasingly class-conscious. The inequities and injustices of capitalism are laid bare every day, especially in the last year thanks to the Covid pandemic. So too is the casual violence, to borrow Easterling’s word, that those with power commit against those without it every day. What are 400,000 deaths, largely avoidable by paying people to stay home, if not state-sanctioned violence? What is a knee on George Floyd’s neck, if not state-sanctioned violence?
When your life is at risk, you don’t have the time to think about “temperament.” You just want to live.
Of course, an argument for temperance, obtuse as it may be, is an argument against left politics. Temperance is a code word for maintaining the status quo.
Easterling’s obtuseness allows her to smuggle in anti-left politics. She can’t be pinned down, as her language—“superbug,” “sugar,” “lumpy”—could mean anything. The inscrutability is both cover for a centrist politics and evidence that Easterling does not care to understand what actually goes on in the world so much as she is committed to projecting some sort of progressive-in-appearance-only theorem onto it.
Of course, architecture theory most of the time has little consequence on the politics and machinations of the world. Thus Easterling can get away with not making sense because, who cares? But, there are real, insidious consequences of this mode of engaging with the world and with politics through architecture theory. It’s been taught in architecture schools for so long that it has created hordes of architects who enter the workforce indoctrinated into thinking that just because they look at the world with some kind of critical eye, they are radicals. That they are above and beyond politics, that they can opt out of reality—which is full of struggle between two classes of people, those who have to sell their labor to survive and those who buy that labor—in favor of their projections of what the world is. In actuality, they cannot do this. They, like most people, are workers. They have to sell their labor, rarefied and mired in intellect as its form may be, to survive.
Easterling’s work turns a purposeful blind eye to that. And, it posits that we can hack capitalism, make it slightly better, design our way out of it. This is nothing but an attempt to circumvent class conflict, which is the only thing—as striking teachers, nurses, longshoremen, and Teamsters have shown us in very recent history—that can bring about favorable change.
If, like I mentioned earlier, people who work in architecture do indeed feel a pressure to engage in this political moment but lack the vocabulary or framework for it, then they should learn. Architects and other professionals are taught to identify first and foremost with their job; it’s a great tool of capitalism to alienate us from our lives and make us servile to nothing other than profit for someone else. But all of our actions don’t have to pass through the profession. We can engage with the world as people first—and as workers.
Get politics. Be clear about what they are. If you want people to listen to what you have to say, learn to write. If you’re a centrist, say it. But quit trying to hack capitalism.
Featured image via the New York Post.