Hard Truths about Concrete

Zachary Korb, Abbott Hospital Parking Garage Ramp, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 1 October 2006

In 1992 the Max Protech Gallery in New York had an exhibit of the concrete furniture work of Scott Burton. Chaise Longings, the catalogue of the exhibit, included an essay, “Concrete and Burton”, by Peter Schjeldahl (at the time an art critic for The Village Voice). It came to my attention when the following section was excerpted in Harper’s Magazine (published under the title, “Hard Truths about Concrete,” vol. 287, no. 1721, October 1993, pp. 28-30).

It is really more of a prose poem, or a paean to concrete than an essay of analysis or criticism. As an enthusiast of urbanism and the human built environment, I too have a considerable eros for concrete, and often find myself reciting lines from this passage to myself as I gaze out the train window rumbling about the city (usually the eastern branch of the red line).

Wall-Ties & Forms, Inc., High Rise Concrete Construction In Venezuela, 26 August 2008

1. Concrete

Concrete is the most careless, slovenly stuff — until it is committed, when it becomes fanatically adamant. Liquid rock, concrete is born under a sign of paradox and does not care. Pour concrete out on the ground and it will start to puddle and spread, in rapture to gravity, but then will think better of it: enough spreading! It heaps up on itself in lazy glops, sensual as a frog.

Concrete takes no notice of what is done with it, flowing into any container, and the containers one makes for it, the molds and forms, must be fashioned with laborious care, strong and tight, because concrete is heavy and entirely feckless. Promiscuous, doing what anyone wants if the person is strong enough to hold it, concrete is the slut, the gigolo, of materials. Every other material — wood, clay, metal, even plastic — has self-respect, a limit to what it will suffer to have done with it, and at the same time is responsive within that limit, supple in the ways it consents to be used. Concrete is stupid and will do anything for anyone, without protest or pleasure, so long as the person indulges its mania to lie down.

Let concrete set, however, and sense the difference. Concrete hardens in the shape of whatever container received its flow, its momentary sensual abandon in thoughtless submission to half-loved gravity. Once it has set, what a difference! Concrete becomes adamant, fanatical, a Puritan, a rock, Robespierre. It declares like no other material the inevitability, the immortality — the divinity! — of the shape it comprises, be the shape a glopped heap on the ground or a concert hall, ridiculous or sublime.

Wall-Ties & Forms, Inc., Aluminum Concrete Forms in Hong Kong, 31 May 2007

Concrete that has set will have no thought, no monomaniacal obsession until the end of time, except this shape. No other material — not brick, not wood, not the very stone blocks of the Great Pyramids forgets itself to such an extent. Bricks planks of wood, and stone blocks whisper from their built configurations of their willingness to be disassembled and to become something else. Whorish but ironic plastic holds back from a lasting passion for the form it takes, murmuring of its readiness if given heat, just some lovely heat, to melt into other forms. Likewise metal and glass. Not concrete once concrete has set.

Set concrete insists, insists, insists. It insists on the rightness, permanence, godliness of the form into which it flowed so carelessly. You must smash set concrete to bits if you would shut up the voice of its insistence, and even then the smashed bits will lie around insistently piping. I was in Berlin early in 1990 and remember a thousand hammers banging away at the Wall, banging out “die, die, die!” The concrete of the awful thing was shrieking back “wall, wall, wall!” It took a long time for the hammers to win the argument, and even then the shattered corpse would not give in. I brought a handful of fragments home, and the ones that retained any flat surface still shrill “wall” in tiny voices, totalitarian for eternity.

There is something inappropriate, not quite right, about the notion of “working” concrete, finely finishing it, making its forms true, smooth, and pristine. It seems insulting to concrete’s gross strength and simplemindedness, mocking concrete as one might a rough farmworker by forcing fancy evening dress on him. Unlike the farmworker, however, concrete is unmockable because it is impervious. Go ahead and make fun of concrete. You might as well. Concrete will never notice.

Concrete has no feelings to hurt. It does have feelings, as we know, but they are adamantine, fanatic, and untouchable by anything. Concrete is solipsistic. By contrast, clay is touchy, wood is as woundable as the flesh it is, and brick has a yeoman worker’s pride, stolid and prickly. All have good reason to fear misuse and to exude sadness when misused. But kick concrete as much as you like, all you will hurt is your toe.

Concrete is among the world’s best exercise devices for unrequited loving. You may love and serve it until your heart is worn out and be assured of no responsiveness, not a quiver in return. No loathing, even. Nothing! Concrete is like Don Quixote’s Dulcinea, only colder. Coarse and stupid beyond compare, it combines these qualities with the froideur of a goddess, of Pallas Athena! It is a dominatrix, blind, deaf, and dumb, dumb beyond anything. You have to be a masochist to love concrete, enjoying the strength that your own capacity to love displays when the loved one is a pitiless idiot.

I too have a piece of the Berlin Wall, brought back for me by a friend who was visiting at the time. One side was part of the flat exterior of the wall. On the other side, two inches into the wall from the face, is an impression left by the concrete’s envelopment of a shaft of rebar.

Photographs “Aluminum Concrete Forms in Hong Kong” and “High Rise Concrete Construction In Venezuela” courtesy of Wall-Ties & Forms, Inc.; “Abbott Hospital Parking Garage Ramp, Minneapolis, MN” courtesy of Zachary Korb; used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

A Third Blog Reboot

So it’s been a bit of a hiatus here at This is Not a Dinner Party Marching Under Banners. I would like to say that I put the blog on hold because I was completely occupied by having started graduate school, but as I really stopped blogging in July of 2010 (with a few quick outliers in September and November), the explanation lies elsewhere. I suspect the real reason that I stopped was because twitter and FaceBook were fitting the personal expression bill. But I never really made an explicit decision and am not actually sure what the reason was.

Whatever the case, 140 characters sufficed for a while, but I am increasingly finding that the character counter block has turned a verbose-threat-level HIGH color long before I have completed my thought and even the usual cleaver pairing down doesn’t suffice to squeeze the idea into the allotted space. So maybe it’s time to resume the blog.

This will be the third iteration of my blog. The original blog, smarties, I developed myself in PHP in 2004 and it was pretty basic. In its second incarnation, it was an attempt at a group blog using an installation of b2evolution (also PHP) hosted by a friend. This time around, I’m giving up on the DIY thing and just going with a WordPress blog. An explanation for the new title and banner can be found on the About page.

I have ported over the July 2007-November 2010 This is Not a Dinner Party archives. The June 2004-July 2007 smarties archives are stuck on a currently deactivated RAID array or a tape backup somewhere. I hope to have them recovered soon enough because there are a number of currently dead links throughout this blog to those old posts and there’s a lot of important thinking and personal history there.

Oddly enough, in my first year as a graduate student, I didn’t write a single piece for any of my seminars with which I was adequately satisfied to make a post out of it. I hope that will change over the next few months and I this blog will serve as a place to do some thinking towards academic work — some background thinking, some preliminary studies, some finished work and so on.

Anyway, enough with the preliminaries: I’ve got a few things queued up already so back to the blog trenches.

Cryogenic Testing the James Webb Telescope Mirrors

À la three posts ago (“Tithing for Metaphysics,” 23 July 2010), I was only using the James Webb Space Telescope as a pretext for a tirade on the political economy of big science and discovery being as much a product of labor and capital — just rarified forms — as other endeavors. The James Webb Space Telescope is starting to come together now and this unusual picture from NASA is getting a lot of play. Here are six out of the eighteen mirrors that will together comprise the main reflector of the telescope about to go into cryogenic testing at the Marshall Space Flight Center.

Cryogenic testing of 6 James Webb Space Telescope mirrors, Marshall Space Flight Center, November 2010

It’s worth noting here that science inadvertently results in a lot of images that could be considered as art — the various images generated by particle accelerators being a favorite here. It’s also worth noting that an independent review panel recently concluded that the project will go $1.5 billion over budget and run a year behind schedule, unless NASA comes up with $500 million more to get it back on schedule (Gupta, Sujata, “Over-Budget Telescope Threatens Other Projects,” New Scientist, 16 November 2010). That’s another $14.50 per taxpayer, bring our total contributions up to $47.40 each — a small price to pay for photographs of infinity.

Teachers in an Era of Information Abundance

Following on my previous post, my IRL friend Frank posted an excerpt from one of his class syllabuses that I think is a good, updated model of the role of the teacher (“A Note on My Teaching Philosophy,” Too Frank?, 29 August 2010):

I am much more interested in your ability to engage with such questions than I am in your ability to memorize series of facts. Unless specifically noted, you should feel free to consult your notes and texts for all assignments, including exams. Information is widely available. What is less common than access to information is the skill required to navigate, evaluate, curate, and interrogate that information. I am not here to dispense knowledge, but to facilitate learning.

Information Work in an Era of Information Abundance

I’m going to excerpt about fifty percent of David Frum’s review from this weekend’s New York Times Book Review (“Unhappy Days,” 5 September 2010, p. BR20):

Art historians tell us that photography revolutionized painting. Suddenly there was a better way of recording the physical appearance of things, and artists had to discover new purposes for brush and pigment. But for those living through the revolution, the process must have seemed more gradual. Long after the Impressionists and Cubists and Futurists, there must have been serious portraitists who continued to earn a living depicting brides on their wedding day or businessmen made good.

I kept thinking of those backward­looking artists all the way through Laura Kalman’s “Right Star Rising.” As a work of history about the Ford and Carter years, there is nothing seriously wrong with it. The facts are accurate, the writing is clear and the point of view is not tendentious. Once upon a time, such a book might have been useful to somebody.

But the question it raises — and it’s not a question about this book alone — is: What’s the point of this kind of history in the age of the Internet? Suppose I’m an undergraduate who stumbles for the first time across the phrase “Proposition 13.” I could, if I were minded, walk over to the university library, pull this book from the shelf and flip to the index. Or I could save myself two hours and Google it. I wouldn’t learn more from a Google search than I’d learn in these pages. But I wouldn’t learn a whole lot less either.

He gets a little more specific than this, makes a few examples, but that’s about all he has to say about the book. It’s nothing against Ms. Kalman — as Mr. Frum writes, “it’s not a question about this book alone.” The analogy to painting in an era of photography is apt. We live in a time in which our relation to information is changing. Problems of availability have — at least in the developed world — been for the most part solved. So like the painter, how are information workers to make their way in this world?

I’m not going to wind this post up with some pat answer. I think that Mr. Frum is also correct in not making a teleologically overdetermined analogy. “For those living through the revolution, the process must have seemed more gradual,” he writes. Painters only found a post-photography life through protracted experimentation.

I think of Harold Bloom’s idea of the anxiety of influence as much more than a theory of poetry. In an age of mass information, all information workers labor under the anxiety of influence (Jimmy Wales is our Milton). No one should think that a publisher is going to cut down a few hundred acres of trees for more of the same.

Tithing for Metaphysics

Artist's conception of the James Webb Space Telescope, NASA, 2009

In 2014 a consortium of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency will launch the James Webb Space Telescope into a solar orbit at the L2 point, permanently in the shadow of the Earth.

According to the Wikipedia article, the primary objectives of the James Webb Space Telescope are four:

  1. to search for light from the first stars and galaxies which formed in the Universe after the Big Bang,
  2. to study the formation and evolution of galaxies,
  3. to understand the formation of stars and planetary systems and
  4. to study planetary systems and the origins of life.

The expected ten year mission life will cost the consortium an estimated $4.5 billion, or about $32.60 per U.S. taxpayer. At this late stage it’s just an accepted commonplace that the government funds large science projects, but how strange it is that the pursuit of such sibylline truths as the origin of the universe and the formation and evolution of galaxies should be deemed worthy of the expenditure of billions of dollars of the public money (also strange that the perspective of biology has expanded to the point where a telescope would be considered a device essential for the study of the origin of life).

And of course these space telescopes are but a small piece of a giant system of university faculty, journal publishing, government agency bureaucracy, government contracting (Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems is the prime contractor for the James Webb Space Telescope), far-flung observatories atop mountains in exotic locales, laboratories cum cavern and valley-spanning machines (cyclotrons, synchrotrons, tokamaks, scintillators, laser interferometers). Somehow the truths offered by cosmology have been determined to be of such import as to command budgets into the tens of billions drawn from the coffers of the whole society. And it’s worth noting that as many of these projects are carried out by intergovernmental consortiums, they are not only national projects, but civilizational and sometimes global efforts.

What bizarre conception of the truth have we worked ourselves around to that the most advanced machinery that the species is capable of constructing are necessary for these expeditions? In a certain sense, there is something striking about religion, in that theogony seems like the kind of thing that should be without costs.

Giuseppe Bezzuoli, Galileo's Inclined Plane Experiment, detail, Natural History Museum, Florence (1841)

But more realistically, truth is a product of the expenditure of labor. When our system of the world was young, and much of nature was laying about as yet undiscovered, little labor was required for new insights. Mere reflection could in many cases suffice. As our system has matured, greater labors have been required (the decreasing marginal utility of verum quaerere). Apparatus became necessary — simple at first, but of growing complexity. Galileo — the great yeoman of the truth — could sire science with little more than an inclined plane. But the contrivances needed to trick out the next most obscure natural effects, to bring the investigation under sufficient control for observations to be made, to limit the range of effects to just those under scrutiny, to achieve consistency in repetition, the energy and materials necessary to proceed to ever more exotic realms of effects, all of these things have undergone similar developments as the rest of our labors: massive injections of capital replacing labor, but also extending our activity into realms that would previously have been impossible, no matter the amount of labor available.

In our era, production of new and novel truth has become perhaps the single most capital intensive — both durable and financial — endeavor in which we engage.

The Electromagnetic Sediment of the Noosphere

Regarding the possibility of the Earth remaining hidden from detection by alien civilizations by running silent, New Scientist points out that it’s already too late (Shostak, Seth, “It’s Too Late to Worry That the Aliens Will Find Us,” 3 July 2010):

We have been inadvertently betraying our presence for 60 years with our television, radio and radar transmissions. The earliest episodes of I Love Lucy have washed over 6,000 or so star systems, and are reaching new audiences at the rate of one solar system a day. If there are sentient beings out there, the signals will reach them.

(Related: “The Noosphere Visualized,” 1 January 2009)

World-Makers, World-Owners

Charles Mudede’s explanation for why the slave becomes the thesis of the next order dialectic in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit is surprisingly straightforward and elegant (“Marxism and Insects: Slave-Making Ants,” SLOG, The Stranger, 13 May 2010):

Hegel argues that because the world is more and more made and shaped by slave labor — serving, building, putting “all to rights” — the world makes more and more sense to slaves and less and less sense to the masters (“so utterly helpless are the masters”). The masters only know how to destroy; the slaves know how to create.

If you follow the link and read the entire post, know that it is the latest installment in Mr. Mudede’s recent ant phase. His explanation of Hegel quoted above is a takeoff from a description of slavery amidst the ants found in Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. For the slave revolt among the ants, definitely read the article that commenter @10 recommends (Rodríguez, Álvaro, “Enslaved Ants Revolt, Slaughter Their Captors’ Children,” DiscoBlog, Discover, 18 August 2008).

How to Make a Mean Martini

Enough of all this who makes a mean martini and who doesn’t shit. It’s three (maybe four) ingredients. If you can’t make a good one it’s because you’re an unschooled lout.

Don’t get me wrong: I exceeded myself just last week hitting color, aroma and blend, but per my last post, it’s not about making a perfect one — in a pluralistic world no such thing exists — it’s only about the minimal qualification of avoiding bad ones — and not to get me wrong again, I hold this level of ineptitude against a bar, keeping in my head a running list of places who fail even this minimal standard.

Besides, most of the important decisions about good cocktails are made at the liquor store, not while attending to the bottles, shakers and glassware. What’s the right ratio of gin / vodka to vermouth? Anything from the apocryphal “glance across the room” up to four- or five-to-one. How much olive juice is tolerable in a dirty martini? Judging from the shit-talk any ol’ amount you prefer. Choose high quality ingredients, meet the minimum standard, and the rest is a matter of taste — for which it is appropriately widely known there is no accounting.

So let’s all stop posing as if mixing cocktails is like laying microchip circuitry or calculating digits of pi. It’s an improvisational art.

The Conservative Outcome of the 2008 Election

Jonathan Alter’s book, The Promise, about the first year of Barack Obama’s presidency, is due out this week and Aaron Wiener has a bit of a preview of it (“Out of the Bailout Bedlam, Obama Emerged on Top,” The Washington Independent, 4 May 2010). At the height of the financial crisis in 2008, both Senators McCain and Obama returned to Washington for a joint White House-Congressional leadership briefing, Senator McCain famously staging the publicity stunt of “suspending” his campaign over developments. Mr. Alter has Senator Obama saying as he left the meeting,

Guys, what I just saw in there made me realize, we have got to win. It was crazy in there. Maybe I shouldn’t be president, but he [McCain] definitely shouldn’t be.

This is admittedly an off-the-cuff remark, probably not representative of an explicit, deeply held political philosophy, but nevertheless I want to highlight it as a fundamentally conservative attitude toward politics and positions of great responsibility. The objective in selecting officers for high office is not to achieve perfection or optimum outcomes, but merely to avoid catastrophe.

What this most reminds me of is the story of the meeting between President-elect John Kennedy and Robert McNamara. Kennedy had offered McNamara the position of Secretary of Defense, but McNamara protested, “Mr. President, it’s absurd; I’m not qualified,” to which Kennedy responded, “Look, Bob, I don’t think there’s any school for presidents, either.” Both represent a recognition of the limits of human judgment and the capabilities of normal people elevated to high office (contrast this with the belief of President Bush that he was carrying out the will of God).

This is of a piece with what Robert Capps, writing for Wired called “the good enough revolution” (“The Good Enough Revolution: When Cheap and Simple Is Just Fine,” vol. 17, no. 9, August 2009, pp. 110-118) or John Maynard Keynes’s bit of wisdom that it’s better to be conventionally wrong than unconventionally right (The General Theory of Employment Interest and Money [1935]).

It’s also worth pointing out that in the great (mostly right wing) debate of democracy versus its contenders — aristocracy, oligarchy, dictatorship, hereditary monarchy — it is in this high-consequences area of avoiding the worst outcomes where democracy most outperforms the alternatives. And it is in avoiding the occasional catastrophic rather than excelling at the upper end that the game is decided.