Monday, August 03, 2015

The Law of Levity is Allowed to Supersede the Law of Gravity

Cover to R.A. Lafferty, Space Chantey (1968)

   It was an age of freaks, monsters, and grotesques. 
All the world was misshapen in marvelous and malevolent ways.
Alfred Bester, The Stars My Destination (1955)

Now this almost goes without saying: but why S, M, L, XL? Why this huge, unwieldy mess of a thing, poorly bound, weighing more than the stack of National Geographics you use to hold up the end of your musty couch? Would it not make more sense to devote a special issue to Delirious New York (1978), that most provocative of texts, one whose historical and theoretical contours are, at least in retrospect, a bit more clear? Yes, for one could then chart a sort of intellectual course for Rem Koolhaas, plot his stints in screenwriting, studio work at the Architectural Association in London, the oft-quoted “Exodus, Or the Voluntary Prisoners of Architecture,” and furtive intellectual encounters with Oswald Mattias Ungers—such tacking and jibing among meridians and parallels, useful materials for scholars, historians, theorists, and practitioners to consult in order to make sense of the work of Koolhaas and his Office for Metropolitan Architecture. And yet when confronting S, M, L, XL, we are—how best to put it—slackjawed?

As a guest theme editor for this issue of the Journal of Architectural Education, I regret to inform you that our only response to “Why S, M, L, XL?” is “Why Not?” It sounds rather defeatist, does it not? As if we are scuttling any serious discussion of this text in favor of some other agenda. But rest assured that we are not. This issue of JAE is something altogether different. Sure, there are essays, design proposals, reviews. Look more closely at the contents, however. There are a lot of personal reflections. There is even an article about space stations! Seriously: what is this thing you are holding in your hands? For starters, it is not an issue devoted to an issue. There are no considerations on historical themes here, no ruminations on the meaning of inchoate terms like “Crisis”, “Utopia”, or “Design +”—which only remind us, is not this the very essence of a theme, to articulate some kind of putative outline for an idea, cast it off into the world, and let others respond to it? If this is so, then an issue dedicated to S, M, L, XL makes all the sense in the world because it makes no sense. 

Imagine, if you will, being in that most antiquated of spaces—a bookstore for chrissakes!!!!—during the mid-1990s. At least for American audiences, the appearance of S, M, L, XL coincided with the appearance with a slew of other “big books.” We are not talking here about texts like Bernard Tschumi’s Event Cities (1994), Diller and Scofidio’s Tourisms of War (1994), or even the various oversized, overbound issues of El Croquis. Here, we are reminded of big books redolent with big ideas, of tomes that are worlds onto themselves, heavy, oceanic: the publication of a new, unedited two volume translation of Robert Musil’s unfinished The Man Without Qualities (1995), David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (1996), Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon (1997), Don DeLillo’s Underworld (1997). Yup, these books are big. Did you read them? Probably not. Do you want to? Well, should you find yourself in some kind of summer party at MoMA-P.S.1 feigning ennui while scanning the crowd for some seemingly more important person to talk to, or if you are pouring yourself a cup of stale, catered coffee in between sessions at a symposium where architecture students and faculty rhapsodize on the state of the field of architectural history, eyes locked on each others’ name tags, beguiled by institutional affiliations and academic pedigrees like moth to candle, you will probably say something like, “I own it, but have only read part of it.” You are now doing Rem Koolhaas and the Monacelli Press a huge favor because you are, in essence, equating S, M, L, XL to those other monuments to money spent capriciously on unread reams of paper—that is to say, add it to your shelf along your pristine copies of Moby-Dick, or the Whale, Ulysses, or Gravity’s Rainbow. Tell people you are a BOOK OWNER, and not a BOOK READER. Stack them up and use them in lieu of an ottoman or a floor jack should you find yourself in that most intractable of situations—on a deserted, two-lane blacktop with a flat tire and with a copy of S, M, L, XL. Build a house with a tiny setback from a major arterial street. Now use copies of the book as insulation from street noise. Yeah!

Such levity may be a little off-putting to audiences more accustomed to your garden-variety mandatory namechecking of continental thinkers and media theorists. Here’s an idea: let science fiction author R.A. Lafferty be your guide. Be on the lookout for that passage from his sadly forgotten Space Chantey (1968) when a spaceship pilot named “Big Fellow” claims, “As regards very small celestial bodies of a light-minded nature, the law of levity is allowed to supersede the law of gravity.”[1]  Which is to say that levity may be the only recourse when confronting a not-so-small thing like S, M, L, XL. Now “levity” also calls to mind the notion that “Comedy is Serious Business,” sometimes attributed to any of the members of Monty Python.[2] Yet “Levity” at once reminds us of the Book of Leviticus, the Biggest of all Big Books, an account of the post-Exodus (no, not the “Exodus” bound within a sundering wall, West Berlin-style, but rather Capital “E” Exodus, you know, that one, a staple of Sunday night family viewing, epic wanderlust courtesy of Cecil B. DeMille and Charlton Heston), edited and redacted on Mt. Sinai by Moses himself.[3] Inheritors of the name “Leviticus” are legion, from Primo Levi to Claude Lévi-Strauss, writers staking a claim to the world when facing its horrific maw. This is the kind of levity we read into Yossarian, the Army Air Force bombardier and antihero of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1963), a character whose various exchanges with bureaucratic structures, reminiscent of the Brothers Marx and Coen, are the antidotes to a surrounding world spinning out of control. Yossarian might as well burn some Thai stick and watch it all fall apart. Whereas your Michael Herrs and Ryszard Kapuścińskis bore witness in a dexedrine fog, its edges illuminated like St. Elmo’s Fire by tracer rounds cleaving meteoritic arcs in midair, here you may find Yossarian (perhaps navigator to Humbert Humbert’s automotive peregrinations) sitting on a Marin County hilltop and drinking Coca Cola in perfect harmony [4], holding hands with fellow travelers like Benny Profane, Oedipa Maas, Gnossos Pappadopoulis, Binx Bolling, Tyrone Slothrop, Rabbit Angstrom, and Ignatius C. Reilly.[5] Here are the modern updates to Herman Melville’s Bartleby, with levity now replacing recalcitrance as the most appropriate response to the travails of modernity.

It all begs an important question: is S, M, L, XL a “funny” book? Is it a knee-jerk reaction, a calculated response? If so, to what? Well, in considering the jumbled combination of image and text, the breakneck oscillations between excursus and pornography, yes, there is reason to, as Vladimir Nabokov urges in Pale Fire (1962), to scour the text and “note the cloak-and-dagger hint-glint” and the “shadow of regicide in the rhyme.”[6] It is comically defiant in the way that Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson), the bespoke assassin and pistol-bearing hermeneuticist of Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994), invokes Ezekiel 25:17 before not pulling the trigger, before choosing life over death: “I’m tryin’ real hard to be the shepherd.”[7] It is a book of a time of transsonic stealth fighters sneaking across No-Fly Zones, of modems sensing each other, 56k analog call-and-response peaks and valleys groaning across a world still spun by telephone wires. The book is unexpected, and somehow, you know, just right, like Cass Elliot, John Phillips, et al harmonizing mellifluously in “California Dreamin’”—by far the most memorable sounds in Wong Kar-wai’s Chungking Express (1994), here juxtaposed against the sodium-lit and steaming claustrophobias in Hong Kong’s Tsim Sha Tsui neighborhood. To paraphrase Laurie Anderson, “this is the record of the time.”[8] 

The essays, reviews, curatorial statements, and micro-narratives in this issue are only a first stab at a kind of revisitation of this time. Readers looking to this special issue of JAE as a kind of roadmap to the influence and legacy of S, M, L, XL will be disappointed. Indeed, there is much work to be done in locating this book within a galaxy of other approaches, from the history of architectural publications, to media and globalization theory, you name it! The authors featured here, all members of a younger generation of scholars taught by those who passed through OMA’s rosters (or who even worked on the publication of S, M, L, XL), are not so much staking new directions for understanding this work as they are asking difficult questions about the role of architectural publishing in our contemporary situation. 

So, how to read this issue alongside S, M, L, XL? Whether characterizing S, M, L, XL’s 1,376 pages as a moment of transition, as a “paradigm shift,” or perhaps even as an instance of metempsychosis, there is the ineluctable sense of a passing, that something has died only to be replaced by a Shelleyan monster or Lovecraftian “thing on the doorstep.”[9] There are many ways to invoke, prod, and understand this behemoth of a book by what appeared before it, and by what came in its wake. Caveat lector: be attentive to the wink and the nudge, choose your words as one chooses poison. Prick up your ears and listen to that other bard from the 1990s, Dean Wareham, crooning about mermaids and electrical storms, as if channeling Rem Koolhaas himself: “But I’m keepin’ all the secrets / And I have nothin’ else to say.”[10] 

(Note: This is a working draft of my introduction to the special issue of the Journal of Architectural Education dedicated to be published on the twentieth anniversary of the publication of S, M, L, XL. Alicia Imperiale and I are the special theme editors for this issue. Special thanks to the JAE editorial staff for involving me in this project. Extra-special thanks go to Alicia, for her comments and insight for the issue, and for taking me along as co-editor for this issue, which will be published later this month)


[1] R.A. Lafferty, Space Chantey (New York: Ace Books, 1968), 111
[2] In preparing for this issue, I asked contributor Mimi Zeiger whether she would consider taking a photograph of someone throwing a copy of S, M, L, XL into the air: not so much a 90º translation of David Letterman dropping a watermelon off a midtown rooftop, circa 1989, but rather a moment inspired by King Arthur’s (Graham Chapman’s) reoccurring conversation about the “air-speed velocity of an unladened swallow” in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975).
[3] Cf. Bob Dylan, “Tombstone Blues,” in Highway 61 Revisited, CBS Records, 1965, 33rpm, 180-gram vinyl (I think): “The king of the Philistines his soldiers to save / Put jawbones on their tombstones and flatters their graves / Puts the pied pipers in prison and fattens the slaves / Then sends them out to the jungle.” Ok, now look at Footnote 5.
[4] A not-so-veiled reference to “Person to Person,” the final episode of Mad Men, when it is revealed (kinda sorta) that Don Draper (Jon Hamm), the show’s main character, came up with the famous Coca Cola “Hilltop” ad (1971) while weaning himself out of an existential crisis in a commune on a Marin County hilltop.
[5] Following Footnote 4, see Michael Herr, Dispatches (New York: Random House, 1977) and Ryszard Kapuściński, Another Day of Life (New York: Vintage, 1976). Aside from Humbert Humbert, the pathological narrator of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (1955), here I am listing the main protagonists from Thomas Pynchon’s V. (1963) and The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), Richard Fariña’s Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me (1966), Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer (1961), Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), John Updike’s Rabbit, Run (1960), and John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces (1980), respectively.
[6] Nabokov, Pale Fire (New York: Random House, 1962), 79.
[7] Pulp Fiction, directed by Quentin Tarantino (1994, Miramax Films).
[8] Laurie Anderson, “From the Air,” in Big Science, Warner Bros., 1982, 33 rpm.
[9] Not an altogether inappropriate simile, as it suggests that the book can be also used as a doorstop. Cf. Cliff Burton, Kirk Hammett, James Hetfield, Lars Ulrich “The Thing That Should Not Be,” in Metallica, Master of Puppets, Elektra Records, 1986, 33 rpm, especially the lyric, “Drain you of your sanity / Face the thing that should not be.” (A reference to H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos that might as well apply to S, M, L, XL).
[10] Dean Wareham, “Sideshow by the Seashore,” in Luna, Penthouse, Elektra Records, 1995, Compact Disc.