Build Your Dreams

Build your dreams, or someone will hire you to build theirs.

Build your dreams, or someone will hire you to build theirs.

I come across these inspirational bits every now and then. I’m cheesy enough at heart to like them. I’ve got more: a lot of them have to do with how you spend your time. E.g., “The future is what happens while you are waiting for it to arrive.” Or something like that.

What People Are For

Robert Frost answered a question about space technology on Quora that also addresses the importance of people, both as set of abilities but also as a set of memories:

[W]hen the Apollo program ended, the factories that assembled those vehicles were retasked or shut down. The jigs were disassembled. The molds were destroyed. The technicians, engineers, scientists, and flight controllers moved onto other jobs. Over time, some of the materials used became obsolete.

If we, today, said – “Let us build another Saturn V rocket and Apollo CSM/LEM and go to the moon!” it would not be a simple task of pulling out the blueprints and bending and cutting metal.

We don’t have the factories or tools. We don’t have the materials. We don’t have the expertise to understand how the real vehicle differed from the drawings. We don’t have the expertise to operate the vehicle.

We would have to substitute modern materials. That changes the vehicle. It changes the mass, it changes the stresses and strains, it changes the interactions. It changes the possible malfunctions. It changes the capabilities of the vehicle.

We would have to spend a few years re-developing the expertise. We would have to conduct new tests and simulations. We would have to draft new flight rules and procedures. We would have to certify new flight controllers and crew.

We would essentially be building a new vehicle.

The Vernacular in Architecture

This past Friday I was asked by Geoff Gjertson of the UL School of Architecture to join him and a number of architects on a panel for the Center for Louisiana Studies’ Vernacular Inventions program. Here are the notes I wrote, not all of which were read outloud:

Let me begin by noting that folklorists understand tradition as the creation of the future out of the past. That is, individuals who think, as it were traditionally, rely upon their knowledge of what has been in order to make what must be … well, be.

Plucking what has been out of the gossamer of experience in which what is now is also entangled is pretty tricky, and one of the great joys of being a folklorist is watching people do it and trying to understand how it works. Tradition, by definition, is always tested against the present moment, against trends that sweep across a community, through a culture.

So, then, what we have before us are two qualities of things, let’s call them traditional and trendy. Traditional is the deep well of what has been and trendy is the wide plain of what is now. There is always the chance that what has been is no longer needed, and it will fade into memory and, from there, if we are lucky, into the historical record. (One of the goals of folklorists is to expand the historical record, to expand the well of human memory.) And there is also the equal chance that what is now will fit so well with tradition, that it will become lodged there and become part of what has been.

That is the nature of tradition: it moves forward, always fattening itself on the trendy, slimming itself of things it no longer needs. More vibrant traditions are better at keeping things around for as long as they can, in case they are needed, and anemic traditions forget too quickly, leaving their practitioners bereft of possible responses to a changing world.

The vernacular can be understood as the dynamic between tradition and trend, between what has been and what is, and, sometimes, what must be.

Folklorists use vernacular as a way to get disciplines more driven by trends to think about tradition, to think about people and their need for a past, their lives in the present, and their dreams for a future.

For folklorists, then, vernacular architecture is a way to get architectural historians to pay attention to all the buildings that people actually live in that are not the stuff of Architectural Digest. Which is to say the vast majority of the planet’s population, 75% of whom, at last count, qualify as peasants — that is, subsistence farmers and the villagers (priests, smiths, and others) with whom their lives are intertwined.

That is, vernacular architecture, like other vernaculars, is a kind of working compromise between folklorists and architectural historians. If folk, was, perhaps, too narrow a term, then popular was too broad, too ephemeral, too fleeting. It is, as such compromises go, a much better arrangement than the one that has developed in the gap between folk art and popular art, sometimes called outsider art, which allows into the realm of those fully grounded within a collection of traditions that interlard any community the clinically insane: I have been to exhibits where Clementine Hunter’s paintings were next to some seriously disturbed individuals. It’s not fun.

Not traditional nor trendy, not folk nor popular, vernacular is the working vocabulary of a community of practitioners within a given form. Some things are, as we say, “in the vernacular.” Which is another way of saying that they have become part of a language, either as part of the way things are put together, the way syntax structures the words in the sentence, or the things that are put together, the words themselves.

I am delighted to be on a panel with working architects, each of which hopes to contribute to an emergent vernacular that moves the traditional architecture of this region toward an ideal, or set of ideals, that is their concern, their fascination. Certainly each of them draws upon regional architectural vernaculars in different ways. Gleaning the traditional in the new is relatively easy, getting the new into tradition … that’s the hard part.

Compound Interest

I gather that Al Bartlett is something of an internet legend when it comes to getting people to think about the power of rates of change, be it doubling, exponential, or compound interest. I wish the video was a little shorter. I’d like to share it with Lily.

New Journal: History of the Humanities

The [University of Chicago Press][] is starting a new journal:

The University of Chicago Press is pleased to announce the launch of History of Humanities, a new journal devoted to the historical and comparative study of the humanities. The first issue will be published in the spring of 2016. History of Humanities, along with the newly formed Society for the History of the Humanities, takes as its subject the evolution of a wide variety of disciplines including archaeology, art history, historiography, linguistics, literary studies, musicology, philology, and media studies, tracing these fields from their earliest developments, through their formalization into university disciplines, and to the modern day. By exploring these subjects across time and civilizations and along with their socio-political and epistemic implications, the journal takes a critical look at the concept of humanities itself.

It might be something for Jonathan Goodwin and me to think about, or at least Goodwin himself as he continues his graphing of various intellectual histories. I wonder how dominated the journal is going to be by historians.