Allison Arieff on Architecture and Jargon, and Why Ethical Theory Should Listen

Allison Arieff’s article, “Why Don’t We Read About Architecture” (New York Times, March 2nd, 2012), concludes, roughly, that the use of jargon in descriptions of architecture interferes with our appreciation of, and engagement with, the sciences and arts of the ‘built environment’. Arieff’s complaint is a familiar one in bemoaning jargon in fields of writing that have acquired an academic dimension; you would have to be particularly perverse to want to read some of the ‘prose’ that is all too frequently brought to bear on descriptions of building, urban spaces, architectural choices and the like. Buildings are where we eat, sleep, make love, bring up children, fight, resolve familial crises, develop relationships; they are where set up home. But writing about them is shrouded in impenetrable, jaw-breaking, ennui-introducing language; it repels rather than invites participation in thinking more about where we live, and how.

Buildings are, of course, used to make political and aesthetic statements, and they are not only used as dwelling spaces. They are also sites of work and storehouses of art, for instance. So some invocation of theoretical language, pitched in several registers, in unpacking an architect’s vision is almost inevitable. But still; the average article on architecture is almost unreadable (and it doesn’t have to be so, given that theory can be written clearly). This lack of readability prohibits a broader ‘engagement’ with the the issues that architecture raises, and perhaps even permits the ghastly buildings that are now ever increasingly a feature of our urban landscapes. It is almost as if the sheer intractability of the linguistic apparatus used to grapple with building spaces has permitted the hijacking of that activity by uninspired economic and artistic decisions.

The closest analogy to this state of affairs is, I think, the state of writing in ethical and moral theory. I am not going to suggest, for a second, that that venue is where anyone even considers looking for guidance in making ethical and moral decisions; for that it seems we have made the decision to turn to literature, the movies, and the plentiful, daily, vivid examples of our friends, lovers, family and co-workers. But that reluctance to turn to the products of professional philosophy should be curiosity-invoking: Does that branch of theorizing–given its subject-matter–have to be so remote from our lived experiences? (I have to admit, there is something richly comic in the idea that someone caught in the horns of an ethical dilemma would run to the local library and start a systematic search through The Philosopher’s Index; and I find this possibility comic even while knowing that that is not what journal articles are meant for.)

The analytically-oriented philosopher is particularly guilty of the sin of inquiry framed in sterile, specialized language, of course, but it doesn’t seem to me that things are any better in any other orientation. It is almost as if the professionalization of ethical and moral inquiry–via its placement in university departments associated with ‘disciplines’–brought with it a linguistic package that demanded a conformity so stifling that its end result has been a rather comprehensive obscuring of its original aim: providing orientation toward the good life.

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