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Residential Proprietors and Commercial Pirates

December 21, 2013 Leave a comment Go to comments

Another metaphor to add to the list of private vs public, experience vs structure, etc. It’s a stretch, but has interesting implications as far as the Westernization of society. Referring generally to categories of real estate, residential and commercial also reflect a broad dialectic of civilization. Early cities were often walled, but even after walls became obsolete, the social context of insiders and outsiders continues under the cosmopolitan aesthetic vs rural aesthetic. Rural inhabitants have long been considered inferior by urbanites. With the exception of projection of their own lost innocence into a noble savage/salt of the Earth archetype, people who live outside of cities or inside of nature are considered rubes and recluses by those who live inside of cities and outside of ‘nature’.

It’s notable that to live or work ‘inside’ of a city is to be immersed in a world of commercial exteriors. The word commerce denotes a coming together (com-) to trade; market; merchant; merchandise. Commerce is inter-national and inter-cultural. To conduct trade is to travel to a location which is well regulated and protected, yet free from undue political influence. The neutrality and publicity of the milieu makes it a kind of anti-residence. The towering structures which define the skylines of modern cities are largely devoid of personal contents. Even during the hours which they are occupied, the residing (etymologically re-siding is like re-sedentary, a reference to sitting-again (and again)) in an office building is by contract. Sitting around when you are contracted to work standing, or standing around when you are contracted to work sitting, is not permitted. By and large, what happens in an office building is comings and goings. The office building itself is a structure, a monument to the generic and unnatural state of the industry that it unintentionally represents.

The word industry contains the same root as structure, which ties back to the realization of public-facing private agendas rather than private or experiential values. Similarly, the word enterprise contains the prefix enter for within or between, and prise is about taking and reaching (prehensile, apprehend, comprehend). Industry, commerce, and trade are all active motivations. The word trade shares etymology with tread, as in to tread a path. They are literally outgoing and extroverted. It is unsurprising then, that the conquest of the New World and rise of mercantilism are tied together with the dawn of the Enlightenment Era and explosive progress in physics and the physical sciences.

What has happened since the latter half of the 20th century, is that the wheel of progress has turned so as to eclipse the residential values entirely with the commercial. In the last 30 years in particular, we have seen a trend away from public spaces which are hospitable to individual people and toward public facing real estate as a hardened asset. Office ‘parks’ leverage landscaping and architectural techniques to minimize loitering or curious visitors. Pleasant looking bushes and flowers are manicured to disguise as well as subtly amplify the artless emptiness of the place. James Howard Kuntsler has called them ‘nature band-aids‘:

the little juniper shrubs in the universal bark-mulch bed deployed in front of a building so depressing and inept that it would dismay even the criminal class of great-granddads’ day. I call these little landscape fantasias nature band-aids.

Everywhere that we look, change seems to come in the form of increasing inconvenience. Packaging that requires special tools to open. Homes built with features that require industrial equipment to perform basic maintenance. Technology which has no user serviceable parts. Where the 19th and 20th century oversaw the obsolescence of hand made and hand repairable objects, the 21st century has brought a level of commercialization which is mandatory and impenetrable. The future of social interaction suggests a menu-driven, pre-fabricated extension of commercial enterprise into the private ‘space’. Ontologically, it is privacy itself which is been spatialized, auctioned off like the broadband spectrum and privatized like the DNA of designer organisms.

The choices being offered thus far have been to either join in a futile resistance, or to embrace the Borg of commercial domination. Some try to effect a Bartleby-like passive protest, hoping that perhaps their preferences in consuming or slacking will contribute to a wave of imitation. It’s probably not going to be that easy. Unlike the revolutionary crucibles of the past, the Western colonization of mind is so thorough that people no longer recognize their own significance. We have accepted the evidence of our own irrelevance, and of the cheap currency of our lives in exchange for the magic beans of structured realism. Any call to progress beyond commercialism are rejected out of hand as both politically naive and unscientific.

While religious fundamentalism thrives, perhaps the popularity of Pope Francis signals the possibility of a future cavalry to the rescue in the form of rehabilitated spiritual traditions? If the Western Imperial drive can yang so far that it has eaten the yin, maybe the yin can flow into the public mind through the back door? Sit-ins and occupations were one way of reclaiming the Residential, but with a deeper understanding of the physics of privacy, it may be that a revolution of enlightened non-doing is already underway within us.

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