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robertogreco : hubris   5

Los Angeles, Houston and the appeal of the hard-to-read city
"This is not going to be a column about all the things the New York Times got wrong about the Los Angeles Times in its recent front-page story by Tim Arango and Adam Nagourney, "A Paper Tears Apart in a City That Never Quite Came Together." It is not, for the most part, going to be about all the things the New York Times got wrong (or simply failed to mention) about Los Angeles itself in that article, which argued that recent turmoil at this newspaper is emblematic of the city's broader lack of support for its major institutions. Plenty of smart people have already weighed in on both fronts.

And yes, every word in the previous sentence links to one of those smart people. Here are a couple more for good measure. When Josh Kun, Carolina Miranda, Daniel Hernandez, David Ulin, Alissa Walker, Matthew Kang and Carolyn Kellogg are united in knocking your analysis of Los Angeles, it might, you know, be a sign.

Anyway. This is going to be a column, instead, about something slightly different: about the legibility (and illegibility) of cities more generally. About how we react — as reporters and critics and simply as people — when we're confronted with a city that doesn't make sense to us right away.

Ten days or so before that story appeared, I spent a long weekend in Houston, meeting up with three old friends ostensibly to see the Warriors, the NBA team I grew up rooting for, play the Rockets — but also just to hang out and eat barbecue and visit the Menil, my favorite museum building in America (just edging out another Texas landmark, the Kimbell in Fort Worth).

Houston is casually written off even more often than Los Angeles, which is saying something. Now the fourth largest city in the country in population — and gaining on third-place Chicago — it's an unruly place in terms of its urbanism, a place that (as Los Angeles once did) has room, or makes room, for a wide spectrum of architectural production, from the innovative to the ugly. Like Los Angeles, it's a city that invested heavily in freeways and other car-centric infrastructure last century and remains, in many neighborhoods, a terrible place to walk.

It's long been a place people go to reinvent themselves, to get rich or to disappear. The flip side of its great tolerance is a certain lack of cohesion, a difficulty in articulating a set of common civic goals. (Here's where I concede that the instinct behind the New York Times piece on L.A., if little about its execution, was perfectly reasonable.) As is the case in Los Angeles, the greatest thing and the worst thing about Houston are one and the same: Nobody cares what anybody else is doing. Freedom in both places sometimes trumps community. It also tends to trump stale donor-class taste.

Roughly one in four residents of Houston's Harris County is foreign-born, a rate nearly as high as those in New York and Los Angeles. Houston's relationship with Dallas, the third biggest city in Texas, is something like L.A.'s with San Francisco; the southern city in each pair is less decorous, less fixed in its civic identity and (at the moment, at least) entirely more vital.

I've been to Houston five or six times; I like spending time there largely because I don't know it as well as I'd like to. That's another way of saying that while I'm there, I'm reminded of the way in which much of the world interacts with and judges Los Angeles, from a position of alienation and even ignorance. I just happen to enjoy that sensation more than most people do.

If I had to put my finger on what unites Houston and Los Angeles, it is a certain elusiveness as urban object. Both cities are opaque and hard to read. What is Houston? Where does it begin and end? Does it have a center? Does it need one? It's tough to say, even when you're there — even when you're looking directly at it.

The same has been said of Los Angeles since its earliest days. Something Carey McWilliams noted about L.A. in 1946 — that it is a place fundamentally ad hoc in spirit, "a gigantic improvisation" — is perhaps even more true of Houston. Before you can pin either city down, you notice that it's wriggled out of your grasp.

People who are accustomed to making quick sense of the world, to ordering it into neat and sharply defined categories, tend to be flummoxed by both places. And reporters at the New York Times are certainly used to making quick sense of the world. If there's one reason the paper keeps getting Los Angeles so spectacularly wrong, I think that's it. Smart, accomplished people don't like being made to feel out of their depth. Los Angeles makes out-of-town reporters feel out of their depth from their first day here.

Their reaction to that feeling, paradoxically enough, is very often to attempt to write that feeling away — to conquer that sense of dislocation by producing a story that sets out to explain Los Angeles in its entirety. Because it's a challenge, maybe, or because they simply can't be convinced, despite all the evidence right in front of them, that Los Angeles, as cities go, is an especially tough nut to crack.

Plenty of journalists have left Los Angeles over the years and moved to New York to work for the New York Times; none of them, as far as I know, has attempted, after two or three months on the job, to write a piece explaining What New York City Means. I can think of many New Yorkers — each of them highly credentialed academically or journalistically or both, which is perhaps the root of the problem — who have come to Los Angeles and tried to pull off that same trick here.

That tendency — to attempt the moon shot, the overarching analysis, too soon — is equal parts hubris and panic. It usually goes about as well as it went this time around for Arango, not incidentally a brand-new arrival in the New York Times bureau here, and Nagourney.

Among the most dedicated scholars of Houston's urban form in recent years has been Lars Lerup, former dean of the Rice University School of Architecture. In his new book of essays, "The Continuous City," he argues that the first step in understanding Houston and cities like it is to begin with a certain humility about the nature and scale of the task.

This kind of city has grown so large — in economic and environmental as well as physical reach — that it begins to stretch beyond our field of vision. The best way to grasp it, according to Lerup, is to understand that it is not Manhattan, Boston, San Francisco or Chicago — to recognize it instead as "a vast field with no distinct borders."

"The old city was a discrete object sitting on a Tuscan hill surrounded by a collectively constructed wall; the new city is everywhere," he writes. "Only when we accept that we can only attain a partial understanding can work begin."

Lerup stresses that huge, spread-out cities like Houston — which he also calls "distributed cities," places where "the spiky downtown is just a blip in the flatness" — have long been tough to read, in part because they are "always in the throes of change." But the relationship between urbanization and climate change has added a new layer of complexity, because big metro regions and their pollution are exacerbating the ecological crisis. The city now "owns everything" and must answer for everything, "even the raging hurricane bearing down on its coast." The vast city has grown vaster still.

If there's one place I part ways with Lerup, it has to do with his insistence that "few conceptual tools have evolved" to help us grapple with the distributed city and its meanings. At least in the case of Los Angeles, the literature on this score is richer, going back many decades, than even many locals realize.

There's not only McWilliams' superb, clear-eyed book "Southern California: An Island on the Land," which I would make required reading for every new hire if I were running the Los Angeles bureau of the New York Times. (Especially the part where McWilliams admits that he hated Los Angeles when he arrived and that it took him "seven long years of exile" to understand and appreciate the city. Seven years! And that was with a brain bigger and more nimble than most.) There's also architect Charles Moore's 1984 guidebook, "City Observed: Los Angeles," which he wrote with Peter Becker and Regula Campbell.

Right at the beginning, Moore, as if to anticipate Lerup, reminds his readers that L.A. is "altogether different from the compact old centers of Manhattan and Boston." (It is not a discrete object sitting on a Tuscan hill.) Making sense of it, as a result, requires "an altogether different plan of attack."

That simple bit of advice is the only one journalists newly arrived in Los Angeles really need to get started on the right foot. It's also one those journalists have been ignoring for 34 years and counting."
houston  losangeles  cities  illegibility  vitality  urban  urbanism  nyc  christopherhawthorne  2018  socal  california  larlerup  manhattan  boston  sanfrancisco  chicago  nytimes  careymcwilliams  joshkun  carolinamiranda  danielhernandez  davidulin  latimes  alissawalker  matthewkang  carolynkellogg  timarango  adamnagourney  elitism  legibility  population  place  identity  elusiveness  hubris  panic  urbanization  climatechange  complexity  charlesmoore 
february 2018 by robertogreco
At last, liberals are waking from a long dream
"So how should we proceed in 2017? The first step is to tone down the prophecies of doom, and swap panic for bewilderment. Panic is a form of hubris. It comes from the feeling that one knows exactly where the world is heading. Bewilderment is more humble and therefore more clear-sighted. If you feel tempted to declare that the apocalypse is upon us, try telling yourself instead: “The truth is, I just don’t understand what’s going on in the world.” "
2017  panic  hubris  humility  uncertainty  bewilderment  yuvalnoahharari  truth 
april 2017 by robertogreco
The Anthropoid Condition - The Los Angeles Review of Books
[via: "Great interview w/ John D. Peters at @LAReviewofBooks: http://lareviewofbooks.org/interview/the-anthropoid-condition-an-interview-with-john-durham-peters/ . A lot of people think they’re smart; Peters is really smart."
https://twitter.com/mattthomas/status/619916078093742080

"Peters’s new book, “The Marvelous Clouds,” is easiest the smartest thing I’ve read in a ages, btw. http://amzn.to/1LY8MqQ "
https://twitter.com/mattthomas/status/619916841733894144 ]

"BRÍAN HANRAHAN: What distinguishes your understanding of 'media' in The Marvelous Clouds from other, maybe better-known uses of the term?

JOHN DURHAM PETERS: 'Media' is one of those terms whose meaning is as imprecise as a plate of spaghetti. And like 'spaghetti,' few can tell if it is a plural or singular noun. My academic preference is to say “media are” with a plural verb in order to underline the diversity of media forms and formats, but most people are happy to talk about media as a mass noun and use the term to refer to everything from journalists and publicity to furnace filters and hard drives. In the field of media studies, media typically are more clearly defined as a cluster of institutions, audiences, and programs (e.g., Disney, BBC, or Google), but there is a minority tradition I favor that sees media more broadly as staples, environments, and data processors of all kinds — as elements in the middle. Some of my critics say this view stretches the concept beyond its breaking point, but I believe ubiquitous computing has already stretched media more than our concepts have: thanks to digital transformations, media are so environmentally pervasive that we need an encompassing definition to match. Theory is usually playing catch-up.

BRÍAN HANRAHAN: The book delves into innumerable subjects, skipping through dozens of disciplines: anthropology, zoology, theology, astronomy, the history of technology, cultural history of many kinds, philosophy and literature and more. But if there is one term that you seem to identify with, it is 'media theory.' On the face of it, that might seem a modest label for such a broad vision. So what is “media theory,” as you understand it, and what can be learned from it?

JOHN DURHAM PETERS: Glad that you think it is a matter of skipping rather than skidding! The book presupposes a view of knowledge and research that it doesn’t spell out at any length. What would the university look like if we took seriously the mortality of the human knower and the responsibility to speak to the species rather than only to one’s peers? I believe it would be a less turfy, more humble, and more interdisciplinary place, one less focused on the newest thing and more open to long stretches of time.[i] Labeling fields of study often amounts to little more than a branding exercise, so my unpretentious choice of “media theory” is, among other things, an indirect comment on academic tribalism. Media theory has almost no barriers to entry — you’d be amazed at how readily some people opine on media without any sense of the field’s traditions or concepts — and almost anyone can call themselves a media theorist; as beings who live in the middle, in medias res, I think that every human being is potentially such a creature. Media theory, at its best, is a means of seeking greater awareness of the basic conditions in which we live.

BRÍAN HANRAHAN: Clouds, unlike fire, sky, and sea, don’t get chapters to themselves in the book, but they are in the title, and they are a recurring motif. What is so interesting about clouds for a media theorist and historian?

JOHN DURHAM PETERS: Clouds are interesting because they bring together so many great questions. It’s hard to boil down something I’ve thought so much about, but here goes.[ii]

First, clouds raise very fundamental questions of where significance lies. Clouds are often thought to be blank and meaningless, the playthings of whimsy. Hardly. Few things are so packed with meaning. Once you start looking at clouds, you see them everywhere in art, literature, religion, and popular culture, and of course in the sky. The question of what clouds mean is a deep one; reading clouds is the paradigm case of how to interpret nature and how not to. Clouds tell us about the weather and the future, and reading the sky is a basic human task; in Iowa, where I live, like many places, clouds are among the most spectacular forms of natural beauty. Of course, there is a long tradition of scorn starting from at least Aristophanes aimed at anyone who finds meaning in clouds, but it is just as foolish to say clouds have no meaning (ask a sailor, pilot, or farmer if clouds mean nothing). The meaning that remains once you subtract human intention turns out to be rich, and I argue that media theory should take this abundant zone of meaning seriously.

Second, from the poison gas clouds of World War I to the mushroom cloud of World War II to the data cloud today, clouds are telling historical markers. While writing the book, I would tell people I was writing about clouds, and they’d sometimes respond, Oh, I work in IT too! (The cloud metaphor, with its hints of benign oversight and calm flow, richly serves the ideological interests of the IT industry.) That the default meaning of “cloud” has become “server-based data storage” is a symptom of nature being absorbed by technology and technology becoming second nature. It is remarkable how casually we accept this monstrous hybrid of atmospheric aerosols and computing infrastructure without a second thought. Clouds are thus a symptom of what it is fashionable to call the anthropocene, the geological epoch in which human agency alters nature radically.

Third, clouds are an elemental background that surrounds us — and unnoticed environments are prime territory for media theory. A central point of the book is that if we define media as carriers of significance then media should include natural elements; studying aerosol clouds and data clouds side by side gives me a way to make this point.

Fourth, clouds raise two fundamental problems in media theory: how to record phenomena that exist in time and how to represent ones that do not conform to a symbolic system.

Regarding recording, the book is a meditation on how media capture and fail to capture time, and clouds are a good example of entities whose nature is to vanish. Clouds illustrate media ontology. Like sounds and music, clouds exist by disappearing. They exist in time. Clouds are highly material — just this morning so much rain dumped on southeastern Iowa as to trigger flashflood warnings again — and their dynamic materiality is suggestive for media under volatile digital conditions (probably one reason the cloud metaphor took hold so readily).

Regarding representing, clouds bear significance, but without any code to clarify what they mean. Their meanings are essentially vague. The history of cloud media, in painting and photography, is the struggle to capture sensuous objects that are also abstract. (The sky was painting abstract impressionist images long before humans did!) Clouds are the original white noise. Well before analog media such as film and sound recording broke the stranglehold of the symbolic in the late nineteenth century, painters struggled to depict cloud colors and forms, often with stunning results. The ability to represent the indefinite is one of the great achievements of modern mathematics and media, and clouds were at the vanguard here too. If you want to understand how meaning works, you have to understand vagueness, and clouds are a chief example.

Finally, clouds have long been associated with thinking, philosophizing and ultimate things, so they fit my atmospheric interests well. I know the title opens me up to wisecracks about academic loftiness. But in a world run by data-analytics Luftmenschen, it is good to get reacquainted with clouds and other kinds of sky media.

BRÍAN HANRAHAN: Why does the media culture of cetaceans, as you imagine it, play such a large role in your history of planetary technics? And what distinguishes your approach from previous thinking about the cetacean world? As you point out, dolphins and whales have long been subjects of utopian fantasy, as well as scientific communications research.

JOHN DURHAM PETERS: Cetaceans, the family of whales, porpoises, and dolphins, are often considered among the most intelligent animals on earth (especially dolphins), but they lack the infrastructures that anchor human existence such as feet, hands, fire, clothing, writing, right angles, celestial orientation, and all other forms of technology. Cetaceans thus present a kind of thought experiment about what it might be like to live in a technology-free habitat. Cetaceans could have techniques — say, of dancing, fishing, or communicating — but they could not have technologies, i.e., made materials that shape other materials, including their environments and minds. They live in habitats immune to fabrication, and thus offer a stark contrast to the human “technosphere,” our domesticated bubble of carbon and silicon, GMO crops and insulation. Intelligent marine mammals offer a radical alternative, at least in thought, to our essentially and externally technical history, and show us how much of what we take to be human depends on our technical supports."

[too much to quote]
johnduhampeters  matthomas  2015  interviews  media  feminism  clouds  cloud  infrastructure  hubris  cetaceans  anthropocene  technology  technosphere  technosolutionism  siliconvalley  writing  history  inderdisciplinary  silos  whitenoise  time  meaning  online  internet  tribalism  academia  mediatheory  slow  zoominginandout  multidisciplinary  crossdisciplinary  transdisciplinary 
july 2015 by robertogreco
Rebecca Giggs – Cherry tree season Japan
"To the credulous outsider, sakura is primarily an aesthetic experience. The blossoms are utterly captivating — as is observing the glee of other people, who pose and gaze amid the trees. The stereotype is as seductive as it is condescending: here is an innocence, we might believe, now lost to Western environmentalists, delighting in the seasons and seasonal change. The enjoyment of sakura is that of being reacquainted with the thrill of meticulous observation. How often does the opportunity to dwell on simply looking at trees present itself to the ordinary urbanite? No one thinks it peculiar in Ueno Park to bend a switch of blossom and inhale its faint perfume.

For hard-headed environmentalists, sakura might be seen as nothing more than the mawkish appreciation of natural beauty. Why talk of these common and decorative trees, when icebergs, polar bears, a dozen small types of amphibian and old-growth forests face the real possibility of extinction, in our lifetime? One might sooner look to ikebana, the Japanese custom of flower-arranging, or even bonsai — trees made miniature with tourniquets and topiary — to garner knowledge about how Japanese people engage with nature. There, at least, we see evidence of an active engagement with natural objects, and an attempt to use botany as a study of environmental relationships. Sakura, on the other hand, seems at once too passive and too sentimental to sustain fruitful analysis.

But to interpret sakura and the conventions of hanami as mere acts of aesthetic indulgence is to miss the full significance of the season. Sakura flowering is brief. To the Japanese people, the cherry-blossom season is properly understood as a contemplation of transience in human life. To celebrate sakura is to mark the fleet-footed passage of time: from the traditions of flower-viewing begun in Japan’s classical history to the embodied time of personal histories and, inevitably, individual mortality. As Motojirō Kajii exclaims in his story ‘Under the Cherry Trees’ (1928):
Dead bodies are buried under the sakura! You have to believe it. Otherwise, you couldn’t possibly explain the beauty of the sakura blossoms. I was restless, lately, because I couldn’t believe in this beauty. But I have now finally understood: dead bodies are buried under the cherry trees.


Beauty, as always, is in step with the death drive. Ultimately, it is this aspect of the sakura tradition that yokes environmental imagination to concepts of deep time, past and future. For, of course, sakura is an acknowledgement that we are each others’ environment; that our communal relationships with each other, with our social pasts and futures, determine how we value the world of trees. Sakura reinforces a set of environmental values in which people — and people’s ethical regard both for one another and for other natural objects — are central. After all, human beings were always ‘natural objects’, despite environmentalism’s focus on wild spaces, creatures and trees. In an age of systemic climate change, the grandeur and mystery of all that we call ‘nature’ is indelibly tinged by human presence. Sakura is founded on an analogous commingling of environmental and cultural information — yet it resists hubris, melancholia or sentimentality.

Leaping from branch to branch in Ueno Park are jungle crows — a heavy, large-billed Asian species of corvid — whose burgeoning population caused Tokyo’s governor in 2009 to call for crow-meat pies to become the city’s special dish. The birds shake down showers of blossom and leave the boughs bare. The season is over. Sakura’s meditations on human transience bond the Japanese people tightly to those future generations whose claim on the experience of cherry trees will be not just seasonal, but perpetual. Behind the beauteous enjoyment of these flowers lies an appreciation of environmental imagination we would do well to recoup."
2014  japan  rebeccagiggs  sakura  hanami  transience  life  death  beauty  cherryblossoms  trees  spring  environmentalism  sustainability  environment  sentimentality  melancholia  hubris  culture 
april 2014 by robertogreco
This Ain’t Your Parent’s Future Johnny Holland – It's all about interaction
"Historically, we have attempted to wrap up the future in tight, neatly explained packages. I propose we let go of those controlling urges. Drop the hubris act. Forget about having any authority over the future. If we are able to embrace the ambiguity of the future, break through current structures, think beyond contemporary logic, and work outside of predictable contexts, the future has a real chance – not just of providing us with faster, smaller, sexier gizmos, but of actually being a better place than today."
future  futurism  designfiction  authority  hubris  control  ambiguity  technology  predictions  context  retrofuture  risk  funding  communication  practicality  arthurcclarke  scifi  sciencefiction  transportation  sethsnyder 
april 2011 by robertogreco

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