Notes: Housing 2.0

January 7, 2009 at 12:02 am | In notes | 7 Comments

I’m finally finishing the article that was due a few days ago – hate being this late. Prompted by what I came across in several articles recently, it’s about housing for people who are homeless. Except I’m looking at this as a “2.0” issue (yes, I know we all have two-dot-oh coming out our ears, or are hearing it as “two-dot-uh-oh,” but…).

A Vancouver architect wants to use companies like Britco and Shelter Industries to churn out the kind of modular housing they usually build for workers up in the Alberta tar sands (which are also in recession, hence the demand for worker housing has receded, hence Britco and Shelter Industries could instead crank out housing for the homeless).

The crux of his idea hinges on speed: it currently takes months if not years to get a social housing project off the ground and into the ground, built. Part of the hang-up has to do with the red tape around permanent housing: try to build anything permanent around here, and you’re tied up at city hall forever.

Modular housing, however, is temporary – the word is in italics, because of course you can apply to renew the temporary permit every 12 months, rinse and repeat as needed.

Point is: modular housing could go up really quickly and actually provide help immediately. It’s not rocket science.

While I was reading about the many variations of modular and mobile and microhousing, I was also thinking about Mark Surman’s A city that thinks like the web, and about other ways in which that two-dot-oh thing has changed engagement, turning people from passive consumers into producers (naturally, Larry Lessig’s TED talk came to mind – if you haven’t seen this, WATCH IT NOW, it’s great).

So then I wondered about learned helplessness, and how we prevent people who are homeless from housing themselves – we make them wait for government action, and we forbid them from constructing their own shelter (largely because they can’t meet the permitting and code requirements). This is kind of the opposite of the two-dot-oh thing that has done so much to revolutionize the way we interact with intangibles. Houses, however, are still mired in …well, in real estate, right? What if houses were tools, instead, the way blogging software is a tool for publishing, or slideshare is a tool for content sharing, or …(fill in the gap with your favorite tool).

Or consider people like Keith Dewey of Zigloo, right here in Victoria, who went past the notion of a traditional house and built his own out of cargo shipping containers in Victoria’s Fernwood neighborhood. Repurposing cargo containers in turn got me thinking about all the other innovators out there. If the change from “houses 1.0” to “houses 2.0” is going to happen, it’ll happen first on the edges, whether with creative innovative individuals, or marginalized groups (people who are homeless). Early adopters for “houses 2.0” are going to be artists and dreamers, or people who can’t afford traditional housing, but who really don’t want to stay mired in learned helplessness, either.

Finally, the creatives aren’t inventing the wheel here. There are historical precedents (there are always historical precedents), but the grooviest, most far-out one was probably Archigram (google it, or see the recent BBC audio slideshow here).

Archigram was ahead of its time, otherwise it would have had the web and mobile technologies, but it didn’t. Archigram proposed ideas like the “DIY Plug-in City,” or villages contained in hovercraft, which would descend on “action points” at certain destinations. As I write in my article, the need for that kind of mobility where the place moves to different locations) doesn’t exist anymore as prerequisite for change or a dynamic, active culture: the internet brings “action points” to you, and we don’t need to move villages (or dream of doing so). But Archigram’s underlying purpose in conceiving of a mutable moveable architecture? Now that’s something that overlaps to a couple of degrees with temporary housing, which in turn overlaps a couple of degrees with unlearning learned helplessness, which in turn overlaps a couple of degrees with mashup culture, which overlaps a couple of degrees with the mobile city, which overlaps a couple of degrees with …a DIY plug-in city.

I have no idea what “houses 2.0” will actually be – I’ll leave predicting the future to others. But somehow I can’t imagine that we don’t have some version of it heading our way.

(For some thoughts from high end architecture – i.e., not necessarily the “houses 2.0” aspect – on the impermanence of architecture, see Asian Designers Are Schooling America. Changes are coming from all angles.)

Notes: feminism.

January 5, 2009 at 10:11 pm | In notes | Comments Off on Notes: feminism.

Occasionally, I note that some articles about feminism have people talking – but I’ve stopped reading them. On occasion it struck me that an article will approach the topic from a generational p.o.v. to ask how a new and younger generation has changed the thinking around feminism. (“New and younger” just makes me feel “old and older,” which might account for my not being as interested in the articles as I might be.)

But today I wondered how feminism is affected by the erosion of rationality under cultural relativism. Few people seem to want to defend reason anymore – it’s so Eurocentric, so white male, so incorrect. Instead, we’re supposed to be non-judgemental and “mindful” of “cultural differences” – even those, which by any measure, are barbaric. But then we’re not supposed to use that word anymore either, since it denotes our cultural elitism and western privilege.

Doesn’t the idea of feminism itself depend on Eurocentric rationality, on Enlightenment? When I read the following in Wikipedia, I still can’t shake the idea that a specific rationality is feminism’s founding insight, and it doesn’t placate me to think its goals should be relative:

During much of its history, most feminist movements and theories had leaders who were predominantly middle-class white women from Western Europe and North America.[14][15][16] However, at least since Sojourner Truth’s 1851 speech to American feminists, women of other races have proposed alternative feminisms.[15] This trend accelerated in the 1960s with the Civil Rights movement in the United States and the collapse of European colonialism in Africa, the Caribbean, parts of Latin America and Southeast Asia. Since that time, women in former European colonies and the Third World have proposed “Post-colonial” and “Third World” feminisms.[16] Some Postcolonial feminists, such as Chandra Talpade Mohanty, are critical of Western feminism for being ethnocentric.[17] Black feminists, such as Angela Davis and Alice Walker, share this view.[14]

Since the 1980s, standpoint feminists have argued that feminism should examine how women’s experience of inequality relates to that of racism, homophobia, classism and colonization.[15][18] In the late 1980s and 1990s postmodern feminists argued that gender roles are socially constructed,[19][20][21] and that it is impossible to generalize women’s experiences across cultures and histories.[22]  (source)

“…and that it is impossible to generalize women’s experiences across cultures and histories”: this sounds like a point of view that isn’t.

“…how women’s experience of inequality relates”: Feminism is relativized? Feminism as a project of knowledge management? (Ick.) Feminist theorists and scholars as knowledge managers? (Off topic: Not immediately related to the idea that feminism is managed, whether by an academic mandarin class or through education and programs, but I’m reminded that George Orwell wrote this great essay that analyzed and critiqued James Burnham, including his book, The Managerial Revolution. Memo to self: reread Orwell. When Burnham wrote his book, he was on a rebound from his first love, Communism. That his work inspired later hawks is another matter – as someone who studied post-war Germany, I don’t think his efforts in founding the OSS were that off-base since the counter-propaganda was massive and appealed to a many “ex”-Nazis who were only too willing to switch from one totalitarianism to another.)

The first principle is equality between men and women, in law and in practice. If we “relativize” that (or abandon it outright) and talk about “women’s experiences across cultures and histories” instead, do we still have a first principle, or just a never-ending series of stories, relative to one another – stories that may or may not cohere, that may or may not have a shape?

Can relativism provide what my neo-marxist intellectual heroes used to call – using the Greek word and exposing their culturally elite tendency – a telos?

Yeah, telos:

A telos (from the Greek word for “end”, “purpose”, or “goal”) is an end or purpose, in a fairly constrained sense used by philosophers such as Aristotle. It is the root of the term “teleology,” roughly the study of purposiveness, or the study of objects with a view to their aims, purposes, or intentions. Teleology figures centrally in Aristotle’s biology and in his theory of causes. It is central to nearly all philosophical theories of history, such as those of Hegel and Marx.” (source)

It’s not cool to talk about ends or purposes anymore, because to do so implies valuing one end over another. Ends cannot be relative to one another and still meaningfully be a telos or goal.

File under: Just wondering.

Also file under: Too long. (This was supposed to be a “note,” not an argument.)

Also file under: Gotcha, haha. (Why? My thinking relies on men – dead European white males, at that…)


January 5, 2009 at 9:19 pm | In notes | Comments Off on Notes.

I’m going to start a new category, “notes,” meant for those one-off ideas that pop up unexpectedly, that aren’t fleshed out, that are just interesting (to me), and that I usually forget.

Like this morning: I wanted to post a note about feminism and enlightenment, but inbetween running around and chores and tasks, it got lost.

I don’t want that to keep happening.

The Sunday Diigo Links Post (weekly)

January 4, 2009 at 2:30 am | In links | Comments Off on The Sunday Diigo Links Post (weekly)

Posted from Diigo. The rest of my favorite links are here.


January 4, 2009 at 1:21 am | In authenticity, Uncategorized, writing | 6 Comments

As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve been commenting on a couple of other sites. As a result, I started mulling over the odd (to me) idea that having a PhD from Harvard and having taught at MIT and Brown is meaningful over and above the ideas I try to contribute when I write anywhere, whether here, in my articles, or on other blog posts or forums. Then I had an epiphany.

Here’s what happened: I had responded to a compliment regarding my past credentials in the comments board to this post by elaborating a bit on my background. It’s a device (narrative, personal history) I find myself interested in more and more, since I’m in a transition phase (again), without a clear path forward. (In a recent October blog post here I already broached this).

Then, some hours after leaving my comment, it hit me.

Even though I’m the first person in my family in my generation to go to university, to grad school, or to get post-graduate degrees (including that PhD in Art History from Harvard), I never found getting those credentials difficult. It was, if anything, easy to do research and to write and to think up new ideas. In fact, I earned my PhD in just five years, which in humanities is considered speedy – some of my fellow students were taking twice as long.

Why was it easy for me, why could I do it quickly? Because I was keen, sharp as a knife: I knew what I wanted. Cut right through the bullshit, barreled on, damn the torpedos.

It was a pleasure.

The difficult part wasn’t coming up with new insights, or synthesizing disparate pieces of information, finding patterns, developing a thesis, going where no grad student had gone before… The difficult part came later, once I started teaching and realized what academia was also about.

First, I have to admit one thing: massive stage fright. I had no idea that a big chunk of my job would entail performing in front of crowds. That threw me for a major loop – I wanted everything I did to be perfect, and I was so afraid of public speaking that I initially wrote out every single word of my lectures. It was Pure Agony. I told myself I didn’t have the “winning” personality – because I’m a critical bitch myself – to get my students to love me, and I was afraid, horribly afraid, that they would hate me instead. Besides, I had imposter syndrome, and I never wanted to be a teacher or a performer. I wanted to be a researcher, a writer, a synthesizer, a connector. An ideas person, but definitely someone who thinks stuff up behind the scenes, not out front like a show pony at the circus.

But here’s my epiphany: I really, really came to hate (yet mourn) academia when I understood that at some point you have to stop being an ideas person – at least for a good chunk of the time. Yes, you have to grind out your lecture courses; but once you have them “under your belt,” you can repeat them ad infinitum with minor tweaking for the next few decades. I saw many professors do this. The seminars were a different matter, but even these were often variations on a theme – and that’s what I now realize was so depressing.

My advisors and most of the humanities professors I knew were too often one-trick ponies, repeating the same things year after year after year. It mattered not whether it was their lectures, or their seminars, or the endless variations on their initial dissertation work – even their “new” research was somehow a variation of what they had already been doing for years. In fact, it was imperative that you milked your dissertation for all it was worth and for as long as you could. To me that prospect seemed frightful, phony – after successfully transforming my 1991 dissertation into a book four years later – published by Princeton University Press in 1995 – I didn’t really want to belabor the topic any longer. Big mistake. Exceptions aside, many academics go on to belabor the same topic, over and over again. If the material seems to run dry, the hacks among them just turn up the volume on the unintelligible language, on the verbiage and jargon that no normal human understands, until they can tell themselves that they’re so specialized that they’re an industry unto themselves.

What I couldn’t stand, truth be told, were the limitations of working for years on one idea, of having to take this one idea on a nation-wide road-show (to conferences, symposia, etc.) in an attempt to get as many additional gigs with which to pad the resume, and of then being branded as “that” guy or “that” girl.

Further, because of the sheer numbers of PhD candidates admitted annually, everyone tries to get as specialized as possible – but without taking full account of how they’re already a “product” of the advisor machine. Student X of Professor Z will work on Xz – or maybe it’s Zx. Student X still has to differentiate him- or herself from Prof. Z enough to have some sort of identity. And so, if Prof. Z was working on the signifiers of female clothing in pre-Revolutionary French painting, Student X might “specialize” by focusing on a niche subject – like undergarments, or the transference of petticoat signifiers to colonial revolutionary settings. I’m making this up of course, but only slightly.

In short, the stuff gets stale, stale, stale – like underwear that hasn’t been changed in a generation.

I mourned the loss of academia: it had seemed like an ideal world for a while, like some kind of “Annie Hall” fantasy, lah-dee-dah. I have beaten myself up repeatedly for losing it, but I only have to read a few paragraphs in my discipline’s trade journals to be reminded of its worst aspects: irrelevance, staleness.

And so, although I’m against New Year’s Resolutions, perhaps I should make a note to myself to craft a New Year’s Mantra: I want freshness to guide me.

That said, I now face the real problem of location and wonder whether Victoria is the right place for me.

Commenting thing.

January 3, 2009 at 4:54 pm | In writing | 1 Comment

Not too much writing on the blog lately, but I have been commenting on some other blogs. Some use the Disqus comment system (which I wish I could install here). My Disqus account is here.

Victoria’s Focus Magazine now online

January 2, 2009 at 11:55 pm | In FOCUS_Magazine, housekeeping, victoria, writing | 2 Comments

In a move that surprised me pleasantly, Focus Magazine – the Victoria/ South Island magazine to which I contribute monthly – has a new website where readers can download (in PDF) the entire magazine, just as it appears in print.

It’s a new feature. On the site, they included not just the current (January 2009 – PDF) issue, but also last month’s (December 2008 – PDF). Focus Magazine is the best monthly covering people, ideas, and culture in Victoria, BC. There’s a lot packed into its pages, by many engaged writers.

PS: I still plan to upload my articles individually (to Scribd), with the current article going up soon.

PPS: I just noticed that the PDF downloads are called “previous” and “current” issues, which makes me think that the issues won’t be archived month-to-month on Focus‘s website. So if readers are interested, download copies while they’re up – they might be gone in a month (or two).

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