Another Architecture

by Mitch McEwen

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    Stay Black and Die: A Possible Ethos for Architecture

    Mitch McEwen
    Jul 25, '20 10:08 PM EST

    [This post consists of long excerpts from a text that got published by Infinite Mile in Detroit a few months before the 2016 election, a text which was quickly forgotten by the few people who read it, including myself.]   

    "Years before I had understood that all I had to do, really had to do, was stay black and die.  Nothing could be more interesting than the first, or more permanent than the latter."

    (1957) Billie looked up from her drink and said, “Speak for yourself. All I got to do is stay black and die.”

    All I got to do is stay black and die

    This statement has been repeated as something of a mantra, whisper, slogan or one-line autobiography within Black America for over half a century. Google will direct to you a Morgan Freeman line in 1989’s “Lean on Me.”  But Maya Angelou’s 1981 autobiography (The Heart of a Woman) describes an encounter with Billie Holiday using the phrase in 1957.  Today, the phrase is emblazoned across  T-shirts and merchandise.

    What does it do to put ‘stay black’ and ‘die’ on equal planes with each other in one sentence, under the rubric of ‘all’ that one has ‘got to do’? One is a responsibility, the other an inevitability.   The ‘all’ implies that nothing else could be considered an obligation, or that all obligation could be considered a subset of these two. 

    In this article, I am considering architecture and its potential ethics through this compunction to stay black and die, this compunction which presents itself, first and foremost, as a limit.  

    “All I got to do…”—meaning, a bracket, a limitation on obligation, first and foremost. Before the content of staying black—let us consider the ethical dimension of launching an ethics from a position of “all I got to do”—from the position of defining the limits of obligation as the initiation of an ethics. 

    This presumes an outside. Presumes other networks of obligations that this ethical realm delineates itself from or renders non-ethical or unethical. 

    And what does this have to do with architecture?  Let us presume that architecture has some relationship to ethics and that to understand the ethical potential, or even the social potential, of architecture would be to enact these ethics.

    For instance, one might consider the architectural ethics of “all I got to do” as incommensurate and counter to the logics of ‘green’ environmentalism that extends its ethical obligations infinitely outward.  This outward network of obligations traces every species and every material cycle—before its deployment and after—while projecting some lifecycle of a building far beyond our own lifecycle. (...a material use into however many generations, beyond a world we can imagine.)

    Architecture is often searching for its origins.  This search is a bit of a Western European fantasy, perhaps inseparable from the militaristic invention of archeology, and in that sense should not be surprising when it finds its source in Western Europe.   

    There is a canonical Adolf Loos origin fable of architecture—the moment of stumbling upon a burial mound in a forest, encountering a shovel-made mound the size of an adult body in the shape of a pyramid—as architecture.  This modernist-era narrative competes with an earlier one, Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, which situates the origin of architecture also in a forest, but with the making of a (primitive) hut.

    What these origin stories have in common—from the Gothic to the Modern—is the positioning of the origin of architecture in relationship to an environment.  As if what precedes architecture temporally and what surrounds architecture spatially are one and the same nature—an environment unmediated and unpopulated.  In this origin, story architecture mediates our relationship to something a priori to society.  Architecture, then, exists always already within a society and systems of building.  It is here in this network that the ethics of limited obligation—“All I have to do is—” produces an ethical position.    

    What if all one must do is stay black and die? Let us, then, consider what it means to stay black. (I will write this as stay ‘Black’ from here forward.) 

    If the position of Blackness is something thrust upon—one is born into Blackness, discovers oneself as Black—as Fanon portrayed, there is a moment of “Look, ma, a Negro!” One discovers oneself as Black from within a social field of multiplicity.  However, if this moment of self-discovery were entirely thrust upon oneself from an outside, an accusation, a look ma, a mark, there would be no need, much less obligation to ‘stay black’.

    This might be easier to comprehend at a neighborhood or urban level.  We have in this country cities that are known for their Black populations and cultures—Washington DC, New Orleans, Detroit.  We can politely and publicly bemoan their loss of Black populations, not because those Black people are disappearing or leaving the United States.  But because those cities are failing to stay Black.

    But can we project an ethical potion onto a city without a sense of an ethical subject?  Who is this subject staying Black?

    There are, of course, popular characters and rhetorics around Black authenticity.  There are popular images of a person who has become white on the ‘inside’.  The obligation to stay Black points to the problem of authenticity, but the demand cannot disassociate Black from staying Black.  It presumes that Blackness—whether authentic or otherwise—already exists and must be maintained.

    Can we develop an ethics from a refusal to be obliged that, nonetheless, demands maintenance of some subjectivity?  It should be noted that this subjectivity is also already socialized to a world other than itself.  The ethos here differs from Polonius’ advice to Hamlet (“To thine own self be true”).   “All I got to do is stay black and die.” In this formulation of obligations, the subject is obliged to staying Black and becomes a willful subject of the sentence by doing so. 

    At this point, we must consider the aspect of mortality for this to make any sense. 

    The obligation is not unitary.  The obligation is dual—to stay Black and die.  The obligation is a refutation.  Only two things one has to do: stay Black and die. 

    What would it mean to take dying as an ethical obligation?

    Here, it feels useful to turn again to the more traditional Western narrative of architecture’s fundamentals, its origin stories, its obligations and meanings. Perhaps we can just go back to Plato and the formulation of the Good as the eternal perfect Form, the forever thing, the never dying.  We are accustomed to hearing an ethos of aesthetics—when aesthetics bother to acknowledge ethics—in terms of ‘timelessness.’  Whether minimalism or the sublime or the beautiful—ascetic or Kantian categories—aesthetics equate ethics to an immortality.

    To consider dying as something one has to do—one of only two things one has to do—positions mortality in relation to Blackness, as a robust filter and editing.  The ethical dimension occurs in the filtering out of false obligations, and mortality serves as the ultimate filter of consciousness and will. Perhaps with infinite time we would define our ethics differently. And who has time for this “perhaps”?

    To oblige oneself only to staying Black and dying is then to oblige oneself to radically filter obligation, itself, in relation to an awareness of mortality and one’s own subject position.

    • 1 Comment


      "I suggest the above structural solutions for one reason: because I am not willing to wait for a personal transformation to happen in the hearts and minds of every American, and I can’t commit my life to convincing people that I am worthy of decency and retribution."

      Jul 27, 20 3:29 pm  · 
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Posts are sporadic. Topics span architecture, urban design, planning, and tangents from these. I sometimes include excerpts of academic articles.

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