A few months back, I was surprised to receive an email from Senator Franken’s daughter.
Mom had a great idea. Our dad’s birthday is coming up — and the last thing he needs is another pair of socks. So, this year, we decided we should get him what he really wants — the support he needs to keep fighting for Minnesota families.
For every $1000 donated, she went on to explain, they’d light one of the 61 candles on his birthday cake.
It’s a strange and wonderful time to be alive. I, a guy living in Texas, can get an email from a Minnesotan senatorial staff collectively posing as their boss’s daughter. Their email even includes the forwarded email from mom (Al Franken’s wife Franni), with the original birthday gift idea. By the time I’ve reached the bottom of the email, my generosity is implicated not just in the happiness of the Senator’s 61st birthday, but the future of Minnesota families. Specifically: if I didn’t donate, Al Franken’s celebrations would involve a cake studded with unlit candles.
But the broader situation is equally absurd: what about the fact that we don’t think about how weird it is to get this sort of email, that we even expect it? Thousands of people must have seen this email. How many of them believed this elaborate fiction? And, whether or not they believed the senator was unaware of a plot to blackmail his supporters into donating by holding hostage the candles on his birthday cake, how many actually considered the concrete facts of this melodrama while making the decision to give him birthday cash?
A critical reading of this episode might suggest that Al Franken’s staff believes his supporters are morons. This would, I think, also be an incorrect reading, to which I’ll propose the following alternative: this modality of “fictionalization” is just the way things are done, or said, today. We expect to be bombarded with such calculated narratives from every direction. It’s a kind of discursive etiquette, by which I mean the fictionalization might be wholly transparent (i.e. we don’t buy it), while still having pervasive and subtle social effects. Our awareness that it’s a performance changes the effects and meaning, but they’re still there.
To apply all this to the e-mail above: we know it’s a ruse, but it’s the kind of play we anticipate. In any case, it’s slightly more interesting than another generic plea for money. It’s so normal that I wouldn’t be surprised if this were the only mention of this bit of absurdity in the whole wide internet. (For what it’s worth, thirty seconds of Google searching corroborated this hypothesis.)
Our everyday is packed with exaggerations that uplift quotidian events to the status of narratives, thickened and punctuated with plots and characters. This is explicitly the role of art in Camus’ and Arendt’s writing. Camus argues, for example, that the novel’s essential performance is to oppose the absurdity of reality with a world that, for justices and injustices, beginnings and its endings, is comprehensible and meaningful. Something of this understanding is shared in Arendt’s description of art and, in particular, the public monument: Action echoes and ripples infinitely and endlessly outward, but art can memorialize it, giving to certain events the permanence that Action lacks. Both authors have a sense that reality is too complex and too fast – inhumanly so. The narrative constructs a world alienated from our immediate experience, one where things are organized, curated, and broken up so that they can be gawked at, and perhaps understood. We know these stories aren’t “real,” but – like etiquette – they’re useful.
Here’s the big surprise: I think this is all directly related to architecture.
Reinier de Graaf goes to the Berlage and gives his lecture on megalopoli(tic)s. At the end, the event’s host asks him about AMO’s methods. De Graaf is initially reluctant to give away trade secrets, but eventually he relents: “We operate on hunches.” A student jumps on the word:
STUDENT: Hunches. . . correspond to Freud’s working way. . . . And today he’s been extremely discredited in the psychology world because he was not… this way of working on hunches was not believable today. And so his theories are really not taken seriously in today’s… given the level that psychology science has reached.
DE GRAAF: Yes, but at the same time Freud is great, because he’s so persuasive. And that he has in common with Le Corbusier and that Freud has in common with Karl Marx. Because ultimately all that they produce is in a form of persuasion, but I think – be that as it may – it still makes the work very powerful, even though one could argue the damage Le Corbusier’s thoughts have done to the city is enormous, it’s at the same great. I hate to read psychoanalysis; I love to read Freud. I hate to read about Karl Marx; I like to read Karl Marx.
In my half-joking, half-serious post before, I put “psychology” on both lists for precisely the reasons that bubble up in de Graaf’s response. Freud’s “hunch-based narrative” of psychological (and even historical) development provides artful, compelling explanations that make his work – discredited or not – enjoyable to read. This rhetorical strategy is apparent not only in OMA/AMO’s oeuvre, but in de Graaf’s decision to end his lecture with a series of provocative images – the US flag all in Communist red, for example – and his claim that the lecture is “partly a joke,” by which he meant it was a story and not necessarily all “true.”
In this sense, OMA’s “hunches,” Freud’s writing, and Al Franken’s donation request all recognize the performative potential of a sort of “narrative exaggeration.” But the architectural use of this strategy is not unique to OMA. Isn’t Tschumi’s circulation diagram of Lerner Hall a “joke” in the same way as de Graaf’s presentation? What about Peter Eisenman’s projects, whose diagrams are both more and less than the buildings themselves? Alejandro Zaera Polo’s “Hokusai Wave” article is clearly about how architects tell stories, but what if he had successfully justified the Yokohama project to a client in its original Kwinterian vernacular? Wouldn’t he still be telling a story to grant the design a kind of singular, virtual-conceptual coherence that the experience of the built work would never possess?
One problem with these examples is that they start to suggest the fictionalization ends when the design has been explained. But my intent with introducing this kind of storytelling outside the architectural context (i.e. with the Al Franken email) was to emphasize that our lives are saturated with these narratives. We’re not just dealing with architectural marketing (or even the design process); the narrative modality is always operative. These narratives don’t paper over a separate, “authentic” reality, they are part of our experience of that reality (or architecture project), and they constitute our experience as much as they reflect it. When we diagram a building, the fact that the diagram doesn’t “authentically” reflect the experience of that building doesn’t change the fact that using a diagram to design the building has an effect on what the building does. Again, Al Franken’s daughter didn’t really send that email at her mother’s prompting, but the implicit narrative that this introduces still effects its social performance.
The problem for architecture is the need to recognize that, because there is no one-to-one relationship between narrative and effect, we can’t just hold ourselves responsible for the former. If every story we told came true, we would only be responsible for telling the right stories. Instead, we’re in a much more precarious position: we tell stories that might come partly true, and then we’re culpable for the way the whole thing unfolds – happily ever after or otherwise. We have to remember that our stories are stories without concluding that this means they’re powerless. We don’t think etiquette is “true,” but we know these rituals are influential. More importantly, knowing this gives us the option of not following them when it comes to it.