Paul Ranogajec Responds to David Brussat

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(Editor's note: Paul Ranogajec's Forum about classicist theory in the April 2016 issue of Traditional Building has elicited a number of responses, including David Brussat's most recent blog. Here he responds to David Brussat.)

I am grateful to David Brussat for responding to my Forum essay with his characteristic ardor. While I admire his passion, he has mischaracterized my position and ignored some of the substantive issues.

Brussat doubles down on the “us-versus-them” rhetoric: it is either modernism or classicism. This reminds me of Le Corbusier’s famously contrived choice: “architecture or revolution.” These kinds of strictly dichotomous cultural ultimatums are false and dangerous. They lead us to defensiveness and rigidity, to being content with some few fragments shored against our ruins, to borrow T.S. Eliot’s great image. We need more than that.

To clarify: the point of engaging with the broader scope of contemporary theory is not because it supports preconceived ideas of classicist principles. It will not simply affirm our beliefs; instead it will challenge us to think through the problems of our time without pat answers, the kinds of answers that merely assert that “classicism is timeless,” or “classicism is natural,” and expect everyone to shake their heads in agreement.

My point is not to force a syncretic union of all contemporary views but to open classicist theory to a wider field of references and resources, to invite it to engage some difficult questions that classicists have not ventured even to ask. When attentive to human frailty, emotions and desires, ideals, institutions and power structures, the best contemporary thought encourages what Martha Nussbaum calls the “sympathetic imagination.” This is at the heart of the classical as I have experienced and understood it, a view I share with someone like Nussbaum. Whether individual authors of contemporary theory support classical architecture today is another matter that has no bearing on the importance of this body of thought.

The sympathetic imagination and the Socratic, self-critical understanding: these have been central pillars of classicism. There has also been a tradition of zealously promoting classicism as the guardian and transmitter of timeless truth, closely allied with privilege and power; let’s call this aristocratic classicism. Today’s classicist theory has busied itself defending this dogmatic aristocratic classicism, but it is not the whole of the classical tradition.

Brussat’s diatribe against types of theory (“faulty – and in all likelihood essentially fraudulent – intellectualization”) that find complexity in things follows the major classicist theorists and critics in insisting on dichotomous difference from a unitary modernism. I agree with Brussat that ever finer distinctions within the term “modernism” are not what’s required, but this is because an Aristotelian category error is not the fundamental issue. The problem is that classicist theory poses as a kind of anti-theory, making claims to be on the side of common sense, to be in tune with “our basic human instincts,” or to be consonant with what is natural. This is its ideologically conservative side, the supposition that it speaks on behalf of simple truths and self-evidently sensible propositions against the charlatanism of its presumed intellectual opponents.

All of that is tendentious posturing against theory; such views themselves express unarticulated and unexamined epistemological, ontological, and other theories. It is theory that refuses the name. That posturing marks the field of classicist theory as hidebound. If we are happy with a secessionist posture of return, one in which classicist criticism relies on declarations of “simple truths” and “eternal verities,” therefore having nothing substantive to say about the complex circumstances inimical to flourishing in which architecture and its profession are inextricably bound up today, then we need go no further in our thinking. Conscience demands more.

As Brussat suggests elsewhere, there can be no doubt that the experience of beauty in relation to instinct and the human condition as it has evolved over the millennia is a fruitful avenue of scientific research. Did I suggest that we not look at that type of work? And where did I claim “that classicists’ embrace of tradition is the basis of classicism’s inability to advance in a ‘milieu’ skeptical of its value”? That is not my argument.

Triumphalist apostrophes to the Western Tradition or to “the classical mind” frequently encountered in today’s classicist rhetoric degrade our intellectual integrity and imaginative capacities. This haughty self-regard diminishes the ability for classicist thought to engage parrhesia, the classical ideal of fearless truth-telling, which Foucault championed. As Socrates teaches in the Gorgias, “we should be the first to accuse ourselves” (480d). I read that as meaning that one must understand how our own unexamined, conventional truths blind us. It is the opposite of the “Satanic mendacity” that Roger Scruton claims to find in Foucault.

Considered in its Socratic rather than aristocratic mode, the classical tradition offers the undeniable wisdom that can come with ancient lineage. Indeed, some contemporary theory foolishly disparages this accumulated wisdom. But a real engagement with the work of Nussbaum and Foucault would show that this is not uniformly true. It would, however, also show that the classical does not – cannot – rest on “eternal verities.” Yet, as a practice concerned with balance, decorum, the commons, and inclusive human flourishing, it may lend support, as Plato knew, to a fortified opposition to the perennially mesmerizing desires for wealth and power that are today so unhinged and unrelenting as to put into question civilized human existence itself.

These are the stakes. For classicist theory to secede, retreating into the seductive clutches of its aristocratic mode, is to render itself irrelevant today.