Making The Weaker Argument The Stronger

Author's picture of barricade
The author's own entry in the genre.

I hap­pened upon Peter Keyes’ excel­lent Still Life with Cone, Stand­pipe, Cau­tion Tape” on Places the oth­er day. For the last 30 years, Keyes has been tak­ing pic­tures of tem­po­rary bar­ri­cades, chart­ing a change in the mark­ing-off of work spaces in pub­lic from var­ied forms of brico­lage to an increas­ing­ly inva­sive orange plas­tic netting.

This may be, on the face of it, the least con­se­quen­tial sub­ject pos­si­ble. Accord­ing­ly, Keyes, as an archi­tec­ture pro­fes­sor, is at pains to demon­strate that it is some­thing worth your time (and his). The pho­tographs are scrupu­lous. The writ­ten treat­ment antic­i­pates doubts: not so strange a hob­by as it once seemed,” You’d think this […] would be bor­ing, but…” For the read­er, he ren­ders the struc­tures as an embry­on­ic archi­tec­ture by will­ful­ly treat­ing them as an embry­on­ic archi­tec­ture: he clas­si­fies by mate­r­i­al and form, and demon­strates a his­tor­i­cal ten­den­cy in the sub­ject. Here we see a reflec­tion of larg­er cul­tur­al trends…” 

Most of all, he gives a copi­ous amount of exam­ples. If each exam­ple is incon­sid­er­able, then each must join forces to demon­strate a cumu­la­tive pres­ence. This accu­mu­la­tion is its own argu­ment; it dou­bles Keyes’ care in the form of a set of arti­facts, read­i­ly read­able by the skep­tic who wants proof of his distinctions. 

This was a time­ly thing for me to read. Hav­ing always pre­ferred to con­cen­trate on incon­se­quen­tial things, I found myself in a field that reg­u­lar­ly joins togeth­er the most ephemer­al and inde­fen­si­ble plea­sures with mat­ters of stu­pe­fy­ing large­ness and urgency. Land­scape archi­tec­ture is gar­den­ing con­t­a­m­i­nat­ed with pieces of the world beyond its wall, pieces of met­al and con­crete and ash, and things still stranger than that. This con­t­a­m­i­na­tion is also the con­t­a­m­i­na­tion of con­science; a dis­or­der we per­ceive and want to set right, want to weed out where we find it. 

Small­ness in land­scape is per­va­sive; not only lin­den flow­ers, but stair details, shades of paint, brands of pen. You could eas­i­ly pur­sue this small­ness to escape the impacts of the out­side, of your own bad con­science; or you could con­tin­u­al­ly, duti­ful­ly, chart the inevitable tremors and traces as you delve down. If Keyes demon­strates the Blakean world in a grain of sand, he does not do so by the Blakean force of imag­i­na­tion. Nor does he quite do it through a step-by-step trans­la­tion: here is the grain of sand at 500x mag­ni­fi­ca­tion, here are its geo­log­i­cal prop­er­ties, here is how it con­tributes to the emer­gent prop­er­ties of the sand we know. See the work of Dr. Gary Green­berg, which made the viral rounds a while ago; look­ing at Green­berg’s gallery and the reportage of it, you can see an inter­est­ing slip­page where Green­berg’s arrange­ment of the most beau­ti­ful pos­si­ble grains of sand from the world is tak­en to be rep­re­sen­ta­tive of any sand seen close at hand. Rather, through his rhetoric the small and the large are seen to resem­ble one anoth­er. Both come away refreshed some­what; the small hav­ing gained in dig­ni­ty, the large hav­ing been seen through a few swift strokes. 

A small ques­tion: if you are in a room with some­one who works on weighty things, how do you defend light things? Lack­ing the exam­ples of the sci­ences, it is dif­fi­cult to argue that a study of minu­tia, odd­i­ties, and the­o­ret­i­cal niceties may lead back to some work­able mas­ter­stroke. You might instead argue that we must con­tin­ue to hon­or such lit­tle spec­u­la­tions in the world of work, as the grains of our own fas­ci­na­tions, what we defend from incur­sion. That is, unavoid­ably, a weak argu­ment in com­par­i­son with the strength that can be demon­strat­ed through by the pres­ence of a lit­tle project.

(July 2016)