So here is a confession. I carry a teeny book of quotes. These quotes come from everywhere. Novels, poems, movies, essays -- whenever I find something I like, I write it down. Together, they form a kind of constellation that maps my state of mind at the time. But for the past couple of weeks, I have been going back to one quote in particular. It's from Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow. There is a particularly creepy scene in the book when the ghost of Walter Rathenau, who not only was head of the AEG (Allgemeine ElektricitÃ¤ts-Gesellschaft), but was also assassinated by two ultra right-wing German nationalists in 1922, appears in front of a group of SS officers. He prophesizes about the Nazi war machine, saying:
These signs are real. They are also symptoms of a process. The process follows the same form, the same structure. To apprehend it you will follow the signs. All talk of cause and effect is secular history, and secular history is a diversionary tactic. Useful to you, gentlemen, but no longer so to us here. If you want the truth -- I know you presume -- you must look to the technology of these matters. Even into the hearts of certain molecules -- it is they after all which dictate temperatures, pressures, rates of flow, costs, profits, the shapes of towers ...
You must ask two questions. First, what is the nature of synthesis? And then: what is the real nature of control?
I was thinking about this very quote all last weekend, during the bitter snow and cold, as I attended a symposium on Philip Johnson held here at the Yale School of Architecture. Philip Johnson and the Constancy of Change, a symposium held a little over a year after Johnson's death in 2005, was at times strange, exhilarating, and sometimes downright spooky. Panelists would talk, and it seemed as if Johnson was there in the room. The first session at Yale (the opening ceremony being a MoMA event hosted by Terence Riley and Jeff Kipnis), began with opening remarks by Emmanuel Petit, as well as presentations by Kurt W. Forster (Yale), Charles Jencks, Mark Jarzombek (MIT). These presentations dealt with several aspects of Johnson's career. Forster presented on the Glass House as a biographical project, while Jencks discussed how Philip Johnson himself was a type of biographical project (he carried top-10 and top-100 lists with him, and indulged others to create such lists). Jarzombek ended with a wholly Nietszchean analysis of Johnson, organizing his ouvre into realms of arbeit and opus. The idea, of course, is that Johnson's work was at least as enigmatic as his persona. However villified or adored, Johnson is a hard one to read. The evening ended with a keynote address by Vincent Scully. And this was the first time I had ever seen him speak. It was everything I expected. He was passionate, poetic, and spoke with untrammeled gravitas. He did lionize Johnson (many have), and though he did show a particularly sad series of images showing Johnson's drawings both at an earlier age and right before his death, his ending of his talk in Latin was to be believed. I am sure there were few people in the audience who could understand Scully's Latin oratory -- but you felt its weight. The only word I understood was quaecumque -- which means "whatsoever."
The second day of the symposium was all heat, whirlwind and dust. Joan Ockman (Columbia) unleashed, attacking Johnson's political connections (her talk even featured footage of Johnson's first "commission" -- a podium for a Father Coughlin rally in Chicago). Everyone was rapt with attention at her talk, especially when Ujjval Vyas spoke about Johnson's political ethics. Reinhold Martin (Columbia) gave a pointed, often humorous account of the building of Pennzoil Plaza in Houston, and how that project came about through Johnson's political connections and politik. Kazys Varnelis (USC) then spoke about Johnson's "empire", looking to Johnson as a singular, but powerful node in a network of influential relationships that enabled him to get the commissions he did. Peter Eisenman gave the concluding remarks, skillfully divorcing the politics and the personality of Johnson, offering a meaningful analysis of why Johnson does matter.
I am only summarizing the material. I have also been very neutral when describing the panelists' material. The symposium left me feeling a little creepy. I kept thinking about Pynchon, about looking into the hearts of certain molecules ... What were the panelists considering as "evidence"? Which sets of molecules did Kurt Forster, Vincent Scully, Joan Ockman, or Reinhold Martin look to tell their stories? I did not mention other participants. Phyllis Lambert told personal anecdotes of her professional relationship with Johnson. Mark Wigley gave a typically erudite, off-the-cuff, and stimulating lecture. Beatriz Colomina gave a precise account of how Johnson used his media connections. Everything was so different. Taking sides during such an event was too easy.
But history is not easy. The practice of history -- its archival quagmires and subtle political manuverings -- is complex and baffling. At the reception following Eisenman's talk, a couple of us were talking to Beatriz Colomina. She asked whether the sound levels on her video footage were adequate. During her talk, she showed clips of a 1964 documentary on Philip Johnson that showed the protagonist, by no means a young man, running and climbing throughout his estate. One can see a bit of a huckster and medicine oil salesman in Johnson -- but for a few minutes, we got to actually see and hear him. Ghostly, spectral bits of pixelated color and subpar sound filled Hastings Hall -- the location of the symposium. The audio part was especially troubling for Colomina. The sound levels were actually really low, and on the screen you could see Johnson's lips moving, arms gesticulating wildly. You see, she wanted us to hear Johnson. She told us that she wanted to present something new and unseen, and she was troubled that we could not hear the footage -- although she is a famous historian, she had to track down the footage and haggle for permission to use the footage. History can be hard work. History is never easy.