There's much to detest in the corporate culture of late-stage capitalism, but its failure on an aesthetic basis is something that really fascinates me. Driving home from Niagara-on-the-Lake—a town with some truly lovely architecture—bcholmes
and I passed a rather fascinating building. I wish I'd snapped a picture because there's no way I can adequately describe how ugly this building was. It was this sprawling complex with a green roof—not green as in full of plants or carrying an aged patina, but a deliberately bright green roof meant to evoke
an aged patina, kind of. Because aged patinas are stately and sophisticated, even when rendered in plastic. It was impossible, at a glance, to look at this building and determine its intended use. It looked halfway between a mega-church and a shopping mall (as I put it, "a perfect symbol for our age") and fully hideous.
I'm currently reading (for class, obviously) Steven R. Covey's The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,
and given how vigorously this book is pushed in our education system, it's a goddamned miracle that I haven't had to read it until now. I'm finding it impenetrable. I say this as someone whose favourite author is James Joyce. But I can't read this. My eyes skim over and bounce off of the page like pebbles on the surface of a lake. There's nothing to grasp on to, just made-up businesspeak and mangled prose. My assigned chapter begins with a quote from Bush and, early on, hits the reader with this abortion of a sentence: "Synergy is the essence of Principle-Centered Leadership."
That is not writing. Someone swallowed jargon and vomited it all over a page, and then a publisher published it because that's how so many people speak (and think) these days.
I'm reminded of the contrast between the writing just before and in the early stages of the Russian Revolution, and the clunky, bureaucratic, heavily stylized prose that followed when Stalin came to power.* This shift is, of course, mirrored in the visual; think of the two impossible architectural projects, Monument to the Third International
and Palace of the Soviets.
You don't need to know anything about Soviet history to guess which one was designed right before purges were about to happen.
I'm no religious sort, but I remember hearing something—probably from an art history prof—that really stuck in my head about how, at one point in Western history, the tallest and grandest buildings were churches, and now they're bank towers. Think of the Gothic cathedral
and the mosque
versus the big glass box.
Today, we can barely imagine what an inspiring building ought to look like; the best we can do is crumple up a piece of paper and call it architecture.
It's the same with prose. We're trained to believe that graceless, clunky writing with a maximum number of "impactfuls" and "bottom-linings" thrown in will somehow make us better, effective
people. I don't think it does. The worst thing about aesthetics is that they come out of nurture, not nature, so if you're trained to think via ungainly prose, your very thoughts become ungainly over time. Remember, the people who crashed the economy were all about synergy.
I don't, of course, expect that every book be written in clear, graceful language, any more than I expect every building to be beautiful. But I do wonder why we promote rather than bury this sort of aesthetic. It says something ugly about our culture.
How do you inspire anyone to believe in anything with buildings, and books, like these.
: But I don't wanna
do my homework.)* The best analysis of how and why this happened that I've come across can be found in Alexei Yurchak's Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More: The Last Soviet Generation. Highly recommended.