Two days ago I revisited some writing I did this summer and found a brief description of my visit to Adolph Loos’ Villa Müller in Prague. I quote:
The English tour began at 9am, Sunday. There were three other visitors in the group: a well-groomed man in his early 30s reading a French guide to the house—-I assume he was French—-and two heavily-caked Czech ladies in their early 50s, both pursed up and smelling like fresh potpourri baskets. Our guide was late so we waited in the foyer for about ten or fifteen minutes until she showed up—-her name I think was Anna—-and she was slightly out of breath, a bit disheveled, her face covered in a thin film of sweat. I had the impression that she wasn’t expecting to be there. The hue of her skin was gray and seemed heavy and her jowls hung like bloated bags on her face. Her eyes barely poked through. I can’t recall if she wore glasses. In any case she began to speak in broken English and she sounded nervous. She stuttered and then stopped. She wiped her brow with her left index, closed her eyes and tried to speak, and stopped, and once again began but then fell silent and stretched her arms in front of her face mirroring her thumbs against each other while staring at them with a clouded gaze. ‘The house was designed in 1930 by…..the house was designed….Loos was an architect in Vienna when…Adolph Loos…’ The French man glanced at me as if to say ‘for real? an autistic tour guide?’ but I wasn’t sure if he was trying to commiserate or if, like me, he was completely taken by the scene. My first thought was autism too but God knows what it really was: Broca’s aphasia? Anxiety? Drugs? A shrewd commentary on the impossibility of describing space with words? In any case, the tour limped on and we somehow made it through the entire house (someone always bravely left the room before she finished speaking…which she never did, really) and in every room she would try to explain something about the architecture and would invariably fall off mid-sentence and start staring at her thumbs again. Whenever she managed to finish a thought—-this may have happened twice in the whole tour—-I had the impression that she wasn’t really thinking of it as a statement or a sentence meant to convey any meaning to anyone, but rather as a repetition of something incomplete, as if the elements that defined the group (in this case, a sentence) somehow never belonged to that group in the first place. But maybe she was just totally high and I was too excited about the whole thing and found the lapse between word and object to be a perfect counterpoint to Loos’ atomistic raumplan or perhaps I just wanted all this to have some meaning because, well, I was in the Muller House and I fucking love the Muller House, but now, as hard as I try to recall or to picture what it was like to walk through those tightly packed spaces, all that remains for me is that voice hanging there, craned like a dying branch behind me.
It is nothing short of a Marian apparition to go through four years of higher education in the United States and come out the other end without as much as a dent on the bumper, still a thinking being somehow, not overly concerned with opinions (least of all your own), maybe even hesitant to raise your hand in public because, you know, questions rarely lead to answers, and somehow, miraculously, still ignorant, at least where it still counts. It would have been easier, in retrospect, to pretend you had a voice all along and that your opinions were just retroactive proof of your future brilliance. But for all the huffing and puffing of classroom democracy, there is one thing that is hardly addressed in hired education: thought. I have always chortled at the notion that a university teaches you to think. A university teaches you to be comfortable with stupidity (your own, other people’s) and maybe, at best, to ignore it. So unless you come wired with a certain proclivity towards thought, the only promise a university can deliver is exposure and self-subjugation. The assumption here is that by some alchemical feat your opinions become thoughts as soon as they come into contact with speech and that those thoughts in turn grant you access to whatever self-suppressing court of back-patters and blinkered mules you call a party or a position. The cult of expression in the iLeagues is really only a placebo cloaking for something much more insidious: the gradual elimination of thought through speech. There is no meritocratic freedom in this after all; what you pay for is a sense of social superiority.
So maybe Hesús had a point when he raised his hand in section and said,Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt has lost its savor, wherewith shall it be salted? it is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out and trodden under the foot of men.
I’m not sure if it’s worth anyone’s time, except maybe Jonah Lehrer’s, to try to understand why Jonah Lehrer is a halfwit. Let’s just assume for now that he is a halfwit, that he and his phrenologist friends—Malcolm Gladwell, David Brooks, etc.—all share a knack for pseudoscientific hooey, stating the obvious in the most reductionist terms thinkable (not that the word think means much in this context) and that their careers have been largely endorsed by the public’s own taste for watered-down truisms and frontal cortex piffle. In this light, Lehrer’s most recent boo-boo is not so much an ethical misstep as it is an open admission to a life of plush intellectual corruption (which in a sense makes his fabrications the most honest thing he’s ever put on record), but rather than further elaborating on why he and his fellow hawkers are a sad and silly lot, I’d rather just freely quote from his own writing, if only to make him sound, well, more like himself. Here he is, for example, explaining the neuroscience of bad decisions to a group of pre-schoolers in 2010:
The point is, children, that the labor of self-control directly inspires our tendency towards anger and not indirectly via a worn down prefrontal cortex. Don’t forget that it is human friction that makes the sparks. But really the most interesting finding is the activation of the caudate, which seems to sit at the intersection of new knowledge and positive emotions. Put another way, beauty is a motivational force that helps modulate conscious awareness. The problem beauty solves is the problem of trying to figure out which sensations are worth making sense of and which ones can be easily ignored.
Someone once said, I can’t remember who, that the anus is actually located in Broca’s area in the inferior frontal gyrus and that Jonah Lehrer’s amygdala is actually an undeveloped penis.
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