Friday, 15 August 2014

ON INTELLECTUALS - cliques of time and fashion

He was a learned man - an ‘intellectual’ - but he had based his beliefs on a tome; a rather esoteric document with a memorably exotic title published by an American scholar. Time caught this ‘intellectual.’ The many subsequent publications of this American scholar repudiated his first theoretical effort that used complex mathematics as a model for design strategies. This scholar’s later writings - many multi-volumes - became rich in a more intuitive, practical, emotive approach to design, but in spite of this repudiation, our 'intellectual' remained steadfast to the original vision. He constantly argued and defended his beliefs, pouring scorn and contempt on all who saw sense in the different, subtler, more personal organic approach to design and doing. It did not seem to matter to him that the original author of his ‘bible’ had veered away from it: changed.

Our ‘intellectual’ never came to see any sense in the later design approach in spite of the original author’s variance. Our ‘intellectual’ was always right. No matter what argument was put up, no matter what proof, he disparaged all who thought differently to him. Once he praised a thesis that he believed was the very best of the year. The thesis confirmed and developed the stiff and formal logic of the intellectual’s preferred approach to design. Others thought that another thesis that promoted a different, richer, more instinctive approach, was much better, not only in subject matter, but also in execution. The intellectual totally disagreed and would not even consider the others’ positions. So the others took the scholar’s ‘prized’ thesis and read it. It was handed back covered with red marks that highlighted factual, grammatical and structural errors in the text and its logic. The intellectual refused to pass any comment on this assessment and never showed any desire to discuss the issue. The prize was given to his preference.

One finds that the staff and writers of Quadrant, an Australian literary and cultural journal, seem to have much the same problem as this intellectual. There appears to be a total disregard, and worse, a rudeness, shown to those outside of the preferred ‘conservative’ group: ‘the smelly little orthodoxies (of) unthinking Leftism.’ Irrespective of position or argument, others who might differ will never be heard or be published in this journal. It is like the staff and writers of the similarly ‘conservative’ The Spectator magazine: no differing opinion and nothing critical of it or them will ever be published, but everybody involved gleefully feels free to blast away almost abusively at all and sundry, giving the false impression of a fresh and open approach to all ideas, not just those of their own. This magazine publishes an interesting section on words, but its own errors in its texts, when highlighted, get ignored in the general enthusiasm of the self-congratulatory harangue. Quadrant appears self-centred in this same way, but less screaming, more ‘correct,’ but no less aggressive. Here all seems to be about mates and beliefs that get reinforced by each other gleefully quoting themselves and those who are in agreement, while savagely mocking those who don’t think likewise, with the editor using his authority of having the final say to produce the first and last blast in a ‘masterly’ overview. There is an illusion of caring for ideas and exploring these with rigour, but sadly this enterprise is carried out in a very selective zone of ‘conservative’ self-interest. It is a framework that lessens rationales and arguments by their limitation of scope of interest and the firewalls involved in these perceptions. Disappointingly, this circumstance diminishes both of these potentially excellent publications.

One does become critical of silly intellectuals. Just intellectuals calling themselves by this title makes them appear, in the array of crude concepts, as ‘self-pleasurers’: indulgent - dull gents; and ladies too. One has to remember that science, as with all ideas, progresses with disagreement, with challenges and disputes; with questions, doubts and doubters rather than with a gentle, happy, safe acquiescence. The latter position is just too easy, too comfortable to promote rigour, even though it might produce a fake image of authority and scholarship. It is a little like university staff who cluster likewise to protect themselves, their positions and their ideas by gathering like minds together, appointing previous students and colleagues as staff, while shunning those who might be critical of them, or who might question their thoughts and actions, or lack of them in order to avoid the awkward challenges and difficulties of difference: see On Education in the right hand column.

Karl Popper made it clear - there is greater depth in doubt than in safe agreement and the sycophantic confirmation of mates: see his Conjectures and Refutations. The quality of any conjecture relies on the quality of the refutations. There is only a benefit in open questioning, never a problem, even if some like to promote this latter view with personal ridicule. We must remember that this questioning discomfort is better than the safety of the closed shop when it comes to the development of ideas and the growth and perception of futures. The protection of any position is like inbreeding - it has the same negative results: deformity and insanity. Why is it so difficult to understand this? One might have hoped that an ‘intellectual’ should have understood the problems with this particular limited relationship. Perhaps these persons are too concerned with their own self-important labelling as an ‘academic’ or ‘scholar’ than with the resolution of the quality and the beauty of an idea, allowing it to become what it wants to be rather than what the individual chooses it to be, or would like it to be. These people seem to spend just too much time criticising others while protecting themselves, their clan, and their own ‘unique’ thoughts; displaying their agreeable cleverness, unchallenged.

Being ‘all of one mind’ does not make you right; it only means that you are a member of a club. Architecture is not immune from this ‘safe’ grouping either with its cliques of time and fashion. So it is that the role of the critic in the profession and practice of architecture, and in the teaching and training of this profession and its practice, remains so important: essentially crucial. The question is: how does one open minds to unknown challenges, to the testing of different questions? There is little point in debating anything if one is there only to protect a position. The value of such interaction lies in the situation where both parties are prepared to listen to each other, to learn, and to change positions if the ideas and their inherent sense and logic call for it. To be like our first ‘intellectual’ and to persevere with a position irrespective of it being repudiated by its originator who had the openness of spirit to be prepared to look, listen, and to change rather than languish in a lie, will achieve only what one thinks to be so. There will be no surprises. We must remember that, as Heraclitus said, ‘All is change, and change alone is unchanging.’

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