January 29, 2003
Follow me on Twitter

Getting It Right

The first responsibility of an academic Web journal, it seems to me, is to get it right -- to avoid misstating facts and distorting theories. What else is academe for? And what other job does an editor have, if not to discourage writers from making embarrassing blunders?

I'm not an architect, but surely someone wasn't paying attention when the Electronic Book Review published Nick Spencer's "The Politics of Postmodern Architecture". I'm not certain, to be frank, precisely what Spencer is trying to argue here, but the core of his argument is that the attack on the World Trade Center was an attack on postmodernism:

Built at the height of American postmodernism in the early 1970s, the World Trade Center, like much architecture, presents the issue of postmodernism's radicalism in a particularly stark fashion. . . . Along with its corporate function, the abstractness of the World Trade Center suggests that it deserves to be recognized as an unqualified expression of recuperated postmodernism."

The World Trade Center cannot present the issue of postmodernism's radicalism, because it was not postmodern. The tall twin towers with their myriad columns reaching unbroken to the sky are surely Late Modern. Louis Sullivan, in "The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered" (1896), famously wrote that

"It must be every inch a proud and soaring thing, rising in sheer exultation that from bottom to top it is a unit without a single dissenting line.

Can we doubt that WTC architect Minoru Yamasaki had this passage in mind when he first drew those twin towers?

This isn't an obscure detail. When Charles Jencks begins his 1977 The Language Of Postmodern Architecture, he starts with the end of Modern Architecture. "Modern Architecture," he writes, "died in St. Louis, Missouri on July 15, 1972.... when the infamous Pruitt-Igoe scheme, or rather several of its slab blocks, were given the final coup de grâce by dynamite." The architect of that failed housing project, built between 1952-1955, was Minoru Yamasaki. Jencks' influential Architectural Design essay (1978) distinguishing "Late-Modern and Post-Modern Architecture" unambiguously situates Yamasaki in late modernism. Vincent Scully Jr.'s Modern Architecture regards Yamasaki as Modern.

Tellingly, Arthur Drexler's Transformations in Modern Architecture cites other Yamasaki buildings --especially the 1956 Wayne State College of Education, as examples of conscious Persian historicizing. There's a ton of historicized neo-Persian Modern throughout the Arab world, all of it much more convenient to explode than Manhattan office towers. Yes, the arches at the base of the WTC curtain wall suggest Moorish or Gothic precedents, and yes, quotation is important to postmodern architecture, but if every allusion makes a building pomo, then what do we make of Corbusier's romanesque arches, or Frank Lloyd Wright's japonisme? What about Sullivan's cast-iron flowers? Playing this game, we can quickly make Modernism disappear entirely, leaving only a machine-age smile floating in the sky.

This leaves an essay about the Islamic attack on postmodernism in a sorry state, because the buildings actually attacked weren't postmodern. I suppose I can see why an Assistant Professor at the University of Nebraska might want to view Al Quaeda as the sworn enemy of postmodern critical theory, casting John Silber and bin Laden together as a new axis of evil and making the 1990's Culture Wars and the struggle for tenure into an extension of diplomacy by other means. But the cost is confusion: muddying definitions, muddling students, and doubtless leading many to wonder, along with Casey Stengel, if anyone here knows how to play this game.

Could I be wrong, and could Yamasaki really turn out to be postmodern? Perhaps a case could be cobbled together. But, with evidence like this piled on the other side, you've got to make the case. Spencer doesn't. Did editors didn't warn him that he was about to walk off the cliff? Did someone think this over? Did Sokal cross anyone's mind?

Folks, this is literally embarrassing, not just for the author or for EBR's editors, but for everyone who publishes research in the arts and humanities. It's easy enough to make mistakes; the last thing we need is to publish stuff that looks obviously wrong and blithely to assume that being wrong doesn't matter. Being wrong matters a lot. It happens to us all at times. It might be happening to me, here and now. But checking the facts and presenting the evidence is the core of scholarship, and we should expect as much from our Web journals as we do from print. If we don't, nobody will take research seriously, and we justify the contempt in which the brokers and know-nothing politicians hold us.