Wednesday, May 9, 2012


What do words do to ideas?
What do ideas do to words?
There is a quality in both ideas and words that can confuse. The irony is that it is the clarity of these concepts and their juxtaposition that gives the uncertainty of the unresolved conflict that has been described as ‘spin.’ As Paul Auster pointed out: Even the facts don’t tell the truth. Politicians are so skilled at this manipulation that one has come to expect nothing less from them than their dazzling, shameless explanations that defy what looks like ordinary common sense and challenges its transparency with plausible possibilities that the honest thinker so generously not only listens to, but also ponders as what could reasonably be otherwise when it is know not to be. The aim seems to be to create doubt so that an alternative to the obvious is fabricated, making the mind reconsider and re-evaluate what is before it, questioning certainty, providing it with a new twist.

Sometimes just the addition of a word in a description can do this. Such subtleties are an everyday occurrence in advertising, so much so that one is easily desensitised to this manipulation. Here familiarity does not breed contempt. It dampens awareness. The strategy has become an art form, not in the sense of art for art’s sake, although it seems to have become this, but rather as something ‘artful’: 

[ahrt-fuhl] adjective 
1. slyly crafty or cunning; deceitful; tricky: artful schemes. 
2. skillful or clever in adapting means to ends; ingenious: an artful choice of metaphors and similes. 
3. done with or characterized by art  or skill: artful acting; artful repairs. 
4. Archaic . artificial.

The latent multiplicity of sense in the word ‘art’ is much enjoyed by those who participate in these games and turn it into this ‘art form’ because it embodies the very characteristics of possible confusion that is the essence of this manoeuvring manipulation. Sometimes the effort is so much in one’s face that it slips by as easily and seamlessly as the most obscure and subtle of indulgences. Take for example, the magazine Quadrant that is promoted as:
Quadrant magazine is the leading general intellectual journal of ideas, literature, poetry and historical and political debate published in Australia.
It sounds like set of simple and unobtrusive words, but two descriptions jump out when one pauses to think more about this marketing: ‘leading’ and ‘intellectual.’ We are being told by the magazine itself - well, let’s say its editor if a face or body is needed - that this magazine is the best in its field and that it addresses matters that are in-tl-ek-choo-uhl.’ The word rolls nicely across the tongue and sits easily on the mind as a comfortable idea, but the dictionary highlights just what this combination of sounds can allude to: 

[in-tl-ek-choo-uhl] adjective
1. appealing to or engaging the intellect: intellectual pursuits.
2. of or pertaining to the intellect or its use: intellectual powers.
3. possessing or showing intellect or mental capacity, especially to a high degree: an intellectual person.
4. guided or developed by or relying on the intellect rather than upon emotions or feelings; rational.
5. characterized by or suggesting a predominance of intellect: an intellectual way of speaking.
6. a person of superior intellect.
7. a person who places a high value on or pursues things of interest to the intellect or the more complex forms and fields of knowledge, as aesthetic or philosophical matters, especially on an abstract and general level.
8. an extremely rational person; a person who relies on intellect rather than on emotions or feelings.
9. a person professionally engaged in mental labour, as a writer or teacher.
10. intellectuals, Archaic .
a. the mental faculties.
b. things pertaining to the intellect.

No doubt all the best associations of this word will be happily accommodated by those selling this magazine, even though the initial use of it might only intend to engage one sense of it. It seems a shrewd description because it has the cunning that allows the purchaser to consider him/herself as one who is superior to others, with a higher degree of mental capacity that has an interest in matters abstract, aesthetic and philosophical – all above things ‘common,’ even common sense.

The magazine also suggests a certain openness to the exploration of ideas, but if anyone has ever tried to be a part of this clique, it is soon discovered that there is a cosy set of relationships and preferences that promote each other in a manner somewhat like inbreeding, with all of the problems associated with this phenomenon. Dissenting propositions are rarely, if ever, published - only their mocking and annihilation is printed. A reading of articles will illustrate this unfortunate stance that at times appears to have the structure of propaganda - right wing - rather than the workings of open and inquiring minds that are prepared to consider and debate any possibility in order to discover what is casually, and dangerously, known as the ‘truth.’ Yet this is just what the magazine likes to think it is doing.

It is a similar circumstance with The Spectator magazine that sees its role as touching intellectual matters too – a better class of subject in the best ‘British’ sense. It likes its ‘superior’ character and promotes it by endorsing its attitudes, beliefs and interests. Here dissenting ideas are sometimes published but are always proved wrong, or are mocked and degraded in favour of the preferred proposition. Yet the magazine sees itself as an open forum for the promotion of discussion and debate. It does engage in some self-deprecatory indulgences and humour, but if anyone has ever attempted to correct an error or to illustrate the nonsense of some argument, hoping to participate in this swagger, it will soon become clear that the supposed open book is not so accessible to the outsider. The game is private. There is a clique here that is considered acceptable. The repetitive monthly format makes this clear – not only the repetition of the chosen writers but also of their opinions that reinforce each other and hammer home the preferences that so openly ridicule any difference: right is right. It is a one-sided attitude because it dislikes having itself ridiculed or shown to be illogical. It is a waste of time to think that this circumstance can be modified – as much as it is with Quadrant. The ‘rant’ seems to take on a different meaning, as does ‘spectator’ when one thinks more about it. The reader is the spectator watching the rant. Involvement is not encouraged, especially if there is any dissent.

In the use or abuse of words, the promotion of the RAIA National Architecture Conference 2012 experience is interesting. The blurb is clear and apparently unambiguous:

Brisbane to host nation's top architecture conference for first time

But this is not so. It is simply not true that this is the first time a national conference has been held in Brisbane, even though the promoters might like it to be – perhaps for their own self-importance? There was the Functions of Architecture conference held in the 1980’s that brought Athfield, Erskine, Ciriani, and others to the Brisbane event that was held in the Crest Hotel. What is going on here? Are memories so poor? When challenged, the RAIA explained the situation – the reference was ‘the first time in twenty years.’ Words! Why not say this? What else is not being said? What else is going on with words here if this phantom clipping of context is so easily adapted for an attractive headline? Does anyone care? If this is its’ approach to history, then the profession has a real problem. The concerns about commercialisation of images in the blurb look hollow. This introductory statement sought to explain the theme – experience. It is an interesting title as it uses a concept that was once too vague to have any relevance in things architecturally intellectual. Has this been forgotten too? Rassmussen’s little book Experiencing Architecture got shoved aside in favour of the flavour of the month that used more exotic phrases differently – like ‘journey’ and ‘narrative.’ Attitudes to Rassmussen’s publication had soured. It was left to catch dust on the secondhand bookshop shelves as a library discard.

Experience is an interesting noun/verb word as the dictionary explains: 

[ik-speer-ee-uhns] noun, verb, ex·pe·ri·enced, ex·pe·ri·enc·ing.
1. a particular instance of personally encountering or undergoing something: My encounter with the bear in the woods was a frightening experience.
2. the process or fact of personally observing, encountering, or undergoing something: business experience.
3. the observing, encountering, or undergoing of things generally as they occur in the course of time: to learn from experience; the range of human experience.
4. knowledge or practical wisdom gained from what one has observed, encountered, or undergone: a man of experience.
5. Philosophy . the totality of the cognitions given by perception; all that is perceived, understood, and remembered.
verb (used with object)
6. to have experience of; meet with; undergo; feel: to experience nausea.
7. to learn by experience.

The introductory statement seemed to involve all meanings to endorse a useful complexity:

A distinguished group of keynote speakers have been invited to discuss the experience of their buildings, the experience of their settings, the experience of their design and construction, the experience of their users and inhabitants, and the enduring experience of architecture. These are not trivial questions.

The text can be read in full on the conference’s web site – see

The statement is signed off by:

Creative Directors
Michael Rayner, Peter Skinner & Shane Thompson

The word ‘creative’ is interesting as it so easily slips off the tongue like ‘intellectual’ and hold a similar latent superiority. Are there other directors who are not creative? Are these particular directors particularly, overly or overtly - uniquely -creative? What is meant by the use of the word? The dictionary might help: 

[kree-ey-tiv] adjective
1. having the quality or power of creating.
2. resulting from originality of thought, exporession, etc.; imaginative: creative writing.
3. originative; productive (usually followed by of ).
4. Facetious . using or creating exaggerated or skewed data, information, etc.: creative bookkeeping.

Mmmm. Are the first three meanings involved, or the fourth? Are all four meanings being alluded to? Cunning. Is the fourth involved in the adoption of the other three? One is never certain just what limits are being set when ‘first time’ is so casually reshaped by a foreshortened period, and other words like ‘experience’ are so liberally engaged in all their assorted meanings to connect to a convincing complexity. Might it have been better to just use the title ‘directors’? Or is the lingering pre-eminence in this description - in the way that ‘intellectual’ allows self-praise in an exaggerated, indulgent self-assessment - just too difficult to ignore?

Words - they are dangerous and crafty in their ambiguity. It is this characteristic that makes them so malleable, but also so poetically beautiful. They have a characteristic that, like most properties, can be used for good and bad – poetry or spin. They can, like the bear in the woods, be a frightening experience if they are not used with a humility, honesty and love. While they allow meanings to be flexibly compromised with a relaxed ease that disguises the intent, the exposure of any manipulation hits hard and lingers long in the bright light of awareness. This exposure is something that can shame those who know it. The others - well, they just keep going, spinning a world that knows only the game and prefers its tricks for its gain. That there might be something like an idea/ideal remains, it seems, an enigma, and a waste of time and effort, even though all promotions will declare otherwise. One is encouraged to believe in believing that the experience of experience always has an inherent, caring value. This is an innate quality of the artful strategy. Beware of the bear in the woods that appear so alluringly attractive. The sentiments are touched upon in the introduction to the conference, that dwell in the obscuration of other promotions that dilutes their substance:

Experience takes the long view of architecture. We need reminding to be wary of beauty that is merely skin-deep. Beyond the first blush of encounter, the twittering hubbub of excitement, the web’s ‘like’ at first sight, we ask an old question – will we still respect this building tomorrow? Will this remain an inviting place to stop, an enjoyable building to occupy, an uplifting residence to dwell in or a great city to inhabit as it ages? Will it provide delight throughout the day, comfort through the seasons and be of lasting significance across generations?

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