Stains of gray

 this afternoon:

The real reason I moved to Napoli is not the fact of its "historic quality," that it is a working port, that I live on a street more than two millenia old, that I do not speak English here, or that everything that technically may be deep-fried is, in fact, deep-fried.  

It is because I have never been anywhere else that has this many different textures - painted, chipped, hewed, repainted, tape reside left, shat upon, igneously formed, pissed upon, peeling, fading, dust covered, polished, etched, stuccoed, pasted over - in such a constrained zone.

If form is - and I believe it is - nothing more than the gradual accretion of ornament (that non-necessary "surface modulation" that is overly indexed to its precise historical moment, given that is an "addition" to the external appearance of material, and, if you are Adolf Loos, is therefore a stain on the timeless, a threat to form's eternality, and therefore cries out for its destruction or erasure), then this city is the permanent, obstinate revenge of ornament.

As such, it feels like home. 


Anonymous said...

Dear Evan,

Well, I do think you sell Loos a bit short. AL was very much about the "vernacular" of usage, not the purity of form. Loos insisted-akin to Wittgenstein-- on concreteness of material, tactilely shaped and textured space, the primacy of usage. That's anything but opposed to Napoli; as you say, forms painted, chipped, hewed, repainted, tape reside left, shat upon, igneously formed, pissed upon, peeling, fading, dust covered, polished, etched, stuccoed, pasted over. Loos's elemental forms aren't geometrical, purified rationalism, like later international style; they are time-tested schema of use, like speech forms, in which the lost history of mouths, toothless, spitting, cursing, singing,reciting poetry &c resonates. Think about those amazing vibrant, noisy piazze in Napoli as syntactical forms given consistency by a long tradition of use--they contain and articulate, but far from subordinate all those funky little speech events going on in them, day after day, bodies and acts leaving their traces, stains, slow modifications of the container in time. Speaking the city--in its own sly dialect. Then think about what Loos wanted to "introduce" as "Western civilization" to the primitive Viennese of 1900: a dialect modernity for the twentieth century, loosening the upright posture of those imperial baroque squares. Napoli = Loos!!! You need to buy some of my books, I think.

But sorry, I know you have just arrived, so I must not be too hard on you. Naples turns everyone's head a little. Perhaps soon you will come to appreciate Naples in all its Loosian glory! And yes, please do come see me some time. You can maybe explain Venice to me, I confess I can't make a goddamn thing of the place . . .

With very best wishes,
Massimo Cacciari

socialism and/or barbarism said...

Caro "Massimo",

You act as if I said Loos was wrong. And I did not. He is right, albeit against himself and for reasons he would not enjoy. And I did not say that Naples was not Loosian, for it is. My point exactly is that ornament - and therefore Napoli, at least as an experience of surfaces - is that which points up the failure of timelessness of form, as it reveals form to be not - as Loos did indeed frame it, no matter how much you bend the vernacular stick - at odds with ornament.

But, indeed, Loos is no defender of the timelessness of form for timelessness' sake. The particularity of the "vernacular" has to do with utility and, above all, with the expenditure labor power and freezing of labor time. (You remember that whole "labor" thing, right, back from about four decades ago when you wrote those books of yours that I liked the best, back when you were more Contro and less Per il Piano?)

He writes:

“And if there were no ornament at all – a situation that may perhaps come about in some thousand years – man would only have to work four hours instead of eight, because half of the work done today is devoted to ornament. Ornament is wasted labour power and hence wasted health. It has always been so.”

Much like women's trousers (see Loos' defense of sensible pants for the modern female cyclist), architecture "should" be governed by use, and it should therefore not muck up its surfaces, particularly when said mucking up involves a potlatch of labor (first in the creation of the ornament, then in the destroying of it as "fashion" changes, then in the rebuilding). Good form is a time-saving device - it is, to put it in the horrific parlance of today, "sustainable." It also, like sustainability, does not understand, in the least, the fundamental dynamics of capital.

My point, and I will write it out in large, readable format not constrained to this minor response, is that the vernacular of form is threatened by its refusal of decay, as form describes not the fact of accretion of the vernacular but the possibility of it holding off against the passage of time. Ornament, insofar as it removes the historical lability of an object by making it both too much of the past, by fixing it to a style, marks the fact of decay (that "falling off") as undeniably visible and, frankly, horrific. It is not, however, a secondary addition to form, a nuisance we could have done with. Rather, it is the present appearance of a long frozen past of attempts to have done with decomposition.

(You should buy some of my books - there's a bit of an extended excursus on this point.)

Although, if what Loos predicted - "Soon the streets of the cities will shine like white walls!" - is true, then this is no city.

But come down from that swampy funeral of a city - I confess, I can make neither head nor tail of Venice myself, although I am writing a little novel about it, and you have a cameo, about which you'll be first happy to know and then rather upset, given how things end for you in the tale - and visit me here. We'll tag up the walls, but very carefully, in all white, with huge rollers, writing nothing but the nihil of ornament, the fact that even that which should be practical, clean, tolerable, and livable, is, after all, purely superficial.


Anonymous said...

Dear ECW,

I think it is too simple to suggest (insinuate?) that the vernacular of form is reducible to alienated labor, and on the same slippery slope, drag down the much more complex and reflection-worthy notion of utility. After all, among the things Loos found useful were lounging about, looking at your friends or family members reading or talking, writing, starting arguments, hanging with Karl Kraus, making love, drinking in a cozy bar (a whole America of whisky and dark wood), riding a tram. But all these are more like anthropological stabilities--topoi of reiterative practice, expressions of poesis--than alienated objectifications of the Hegelian-Debordian sort you seem haunted by. ("O Bernard, Bernard. . ."). If it were this notion of alienated form that Loos had employed, then I would agree with you it has no way of incorporating time, ergo, decay--natural history, aging, death, which are as much a characteristic of the quasi-languages of art as of creatures and organic life. But I don't see that to be the case: Loos's vernacular form (better: formation / deformation) literally incorporates time as its constitutive, formative condition. Ornament, drawing, and above all your amusing but symptomatic evocation of painted white walls are all too much caught up in a schema of negation and negation of the negation to capture the subtle topo-logic of Loosian form.

As for the city "shining like white walls," that to my mind is a metaphor that the city streets not be dressed up like adorable little Viennese interiors, with teeny teapot covers and tiny wall plaques reading "Gott segne dieses Haus," but rather that appropriate to our modernity they be radically turned out onto themselves, fully exteriorized as spaces of (our) ex-posure and ex-stasis. It was a surprising concession to formalism on your part to take Loos's whiteness "at face value" as if it were a question of "style" and not a trope of ex-istence in the abstract depth into which it expels us.

Ah friend, you forget, too, that once a provincial Mayor always a provincial Mayor. And how would if be if even our solid Bürgermeister were running around with cans of red paint in our hands? Haven't we had enough anarchy from our Ubu-esque boys in Rome?


socialism and/or barbarism said...

Master Bürger,

We are, it seems, having a discussion about - if not cleft it twain by - the gap between what Adolf enjoyed doing (including what he designed) and what he said about certain things that are done. And while I for one am quite partial (while not having the distinct pleasure of hanging with Mr. Kraus) to all of those practiced topoi, particularly when combined in rapid sequence, I think that there may be something worth saying about what Loos said. For while these are surely not a stable opposition, and likely nothing that can find its thread through a Hegelian maze (even as I admit my tendency, if only toward chiasmus of prose, toward your accusation), the fact remains that we have these two words, form and ornament.

For the moment, let us assume/insinuate - and, I hate to break it to you, Loos himself does - that there is some difference there. Even if ornament will prove itself ultimately uninteresting, it shows itself first to be, for Loos, something worth butting the head of practice against. And, as thought itself is one of those reiterative practices, it is worth starting with what may ultimately be thrown out. Otherwise, we would simply be doing what you say I am doing, tossing out concepts on the way down a slippery slope.

For, I fear, M, that you are doing a bit of the same.

(Not to mention a rather slippery form of argument itself, in which you take what I say about form in the context of built surfaces, add a set of other practices to the discussion, and then say, aha, good luck Debordizing this!, while ignoring the fact that it is precisely because I do not think that, let us say, the act drinking whiskey and the presence of a building are one and the same that I do not, therefore, subject everything to a logic of alienated objectivity or, more relevantly, a formalization that could see them as proximate practices. There is a formation to the stability of drunkenness that is not identical to, or even commensurate, with the formation of the stability of a concrete foundation. I am, as Günther Anders put it, an “occasional philosopher”: some of those occasions may be things such as alienated objectivity, but I insist that thought be adequate, or at least attentive to, the unlikeness of things.)

But as for our slippery slope, it seems that in order to give your quite good account of form (I admit that the account I was giving in, after all, a single sentence hinted falsely at a rather flat Loos, and I too am less interested in simply pulling a reversal - aha, we’ll keep the same structure, but now ornament is the grounding term! - than I am in the textures at hand), you excise a couple things.

One is style, which seems to have a whole lot to do with abstract depth, albeit in how it ceaselessly skirts around that, gesturing toward an authenticity that could be exteriorized while also making it inaccessible by the insistence on staying at the surface: it is the surface dwelling that maps, from the outside, the enormous negative space of abstract depth that does not lie inside and never did.

socialism and/or barbarism said...

[the limits of the internet are making me split my response. Continued from above]

The other, of course, is ornament. And so, I will simply ask: if form is what you say it is, what, then, are we to make of ornament? That is an earnest question.

My wager is that it has to do with the repetition and non-decay that is falsely ascribed to form, a notion of form that is, despite any counter-readings one could offer, present in Loos if only as an idea to be worked through and if not, of course, the end story.

It is in this way that ornament interests me: not that it is an “alternative,” but that it points up the failure of that shit notion of “pure form”, and, among other things, points us toward this other Loos that is, at the end of the day, far more important. In this way, ornament is not added to some impossible, transhistorical form. (Again, need I reiterate, that this version of form is not what I am claiming that Loos “advocates.”) It is what happens when that set of practices gets stuck and becomes pattern. More basely, ornament is what happens when form goes bad. It is, therefore, a wasting of utility, yet which does not waste away.

And as such, ornament is of prime importance because as those reiterative practices are not commensurable with one another but need to be done, reworked, lived through, enjoyed, then the only way we can grasp some semblance of that which we are not ourselves in the process of practicing is through a coming into contact with ornament, with what got stuck. Ornament, then, occasions a practice of trying to grapple with the presence of history.

Such is my relation to Worringer: I’m interested not in the restless abstract vitality of the Northern Line but in what I’ll call the Southern Line: the repetitive patterning that emerges from the becoming-ornament (i.e. repeat again and again, turn around, make edges of things fit) of that which once had real poesis, active decay, and lived reiteration and depth. (Although depth is just a thickness of coagulated surfaces.) Ornament is, for me, the fundamental figure of horror. It is not a “good thing”: aside from a real dearth of wallpaper that should be rectified, we don’t need more ornament. But it matters.

By the way, odd note about those white wall streets: Loos says the streets will shine like walls. Hence, a turning. Not with any clarity of the full reversal or headstands, but tilted 90 degress, knocked over. Provided, that is, that someone went to the trouble to paint both sides of it. And do the walls shine like streets?

There is a thunderstorm in Napoli tonight. If you know of a cozy American bar around here, let me know. I’ll even buy my favorite provincial Mayor a drink sometime.


P.S. That wasn’t anarchy in Rome. That was a wee bit of deformation brought about by a formation that seems to have been in the works for a long while and which, depending who you ask, is either a stuck form overdue to be regarded as ornament or is a lived practice that has yet to get old.

Anonymous said...

Dear ECW,

I think Adolf would have quite enjoyed your notion of being cleft in twain by what we enjoy doing and what we say about it--yet enjoying the design that leads to this rift would have been, as it were, his veritable Bauen im Raum, to be affirmed over the pale drawing of this practice he might have provided us through the two-dimensional graphism of words (though a swift dialect turn might offer a tantalizing glimpse of another dimensionality, into the abysses of popular speech, even there). The "difference"of which you speak is there--let us admit it--as ineluctably as a facade that winks at us only through its intolerably irregular apertures. In constituting one's own self in writing--for instance, signing myself as something called "Massimo Cacciari"--I follow to the end of the line the tracks of a polemical process, exiling--to the inner depths of Naples, for instance--all those whom I might otherwise have been all too willing to have become. Denying myself other avatars, I become who I am. You are not I: in this I discern our non-identical sameness, star-friend.

And I sense, though I will never cede a ell of my native ground, that what you wish to nominate "ornament," I pronounce in my conceptual dialect "form." Yet "if form is what I say," to paraphrase you, would there ever be a point from which ornament could extrude or, since ornament for you is not crime but horror, any skin from which ornament might ever bleed forth? In considering the Naples you perceive, I picture all too evidently an image from Bluebeard's Castle of walls weeping and gold coins seeping with blood and lymph. Resentful slavic bedbugs gnashing their mandibles beneath the imperial wallpaper. But why, after all that we have undergone in the previous century of European twilight, should form also have to "go bad"? Couldn't we equally, and equally unjustly, say that it has "gone good," "converted," been "saved"? I mean by this, of course: Isn't this whole matter of good and bad form nothing more than a sentimental inferior religion, like Satanism shadow boxing with Catholicism, in an interminable set of matches? Could "bad" ever become more than just an aesthetic breviary for defrocked priests?

Still, I confess (am I too becoming Catholic?): you occasion in me a disturbing sense of bafflement with your observation that the white walls have tipped down into the streets. Could this not mean, in fact, that we are expelled into the exteriority of life from the subterranean realms of the dead, as if into an exposed publicness coterminous with the duration of our very sojourn on earth? Was this the surface you meant? Mercy, I'm getting too old to suffer pratfalls from the cunning of the (crumbling) concrete.

And now to spin the walls on you a little in turn: the anarchy in Rome to which I alluded was not that pleasant little neighborhood theater in the streets of a few days ago. Everything there was, is, and tends remain quite sweetly in order. I meant, of course, the more consistent and radical anarchy that reigns in Palazzo Montecitorio--ornamented aptly, I might add, by superb exemplars of art nouveau and the verbal arabesques of a mediatized democracy.

With best,

Anonymous said...

Dear Evan and Massimo,

I couldn't resist weighing in, reading your exchange as I gum my inevitable meal of ham and cream (a man without stomach must eat the without qualities, Musil might have justly said).

On burning cities and white walls: these, along with whiskey bars, are lessons I carried back from three fine years in America, my "study abroad" period. Burn down Chicago, rebuild the White City: by 1893 you would have to be an idiot--and there were certainly plenty of them around then as now--not to recognize that this was to be the very maxim of the life ahead of us. No metaphors there for me, dear Massimo, just employment possibilities for a guy too often having to cadge pennies for my next "kleiner brauner" and a chat with Kraus as he slashed up his proofs with a fountain pen sharp as a razor. After all, without the help of rioters, arsonists, stray animals kicking over kerosene lanterns, defective electrical switches, gas main explosions, and aerial bombardments where would we builders and city planners be? But really, let's be honest: how else would you have gotten the La Fenice renovations past the taxpayers than to put the negativity of fire and water to work in the service of progress? The people of Venice would sooner have let rats nest in the velvet seats than shell out sufficient taxes to keep up a theater in style.

In any case, though, Massimo (who I see from time to time) and Evan (haven't yet had the pleasure), it's nice to have you thinking of me now and then. Give me a ring when you feel like chatting. I'm in the phone book.

Yours sincerely,
Adolf Loos