An American friend of mine recently received an invitation to a symposium at the Yale School of Architecture. The invitation was in the form of a poster largely filled with words in various fonts upon a matte black background as follows:
writing stating accompanying overwhelming looming meeting overriding leading telling having describing noting learning suggesting building hearing voicing conducting coming saying receiving majoring graduating reporting consisting revitalizing being doing founding teaching scouting networking gaining designing assuming taking surrounding waiting imagining aspiring rescuing visiting using reshaping promoting masquerading thinking beginning saving working casting reviving making commenting reflecting opposing renovating offering getting searching calling rebuilding deconstructing fictionalizing presenting encouraging emerging dazzling documenting depicting changing broadening creating disseminating drawing requiring focusing educating
If you had read this list of words, what would you conclude that the symposium was about? Art? Genetics? Philosophy? Military history? Religion? Ethics? Would anything come to mind? If you gave the list to a thousand people at random, not one would guess correctly (not that they would try hard, for some mysteries are not intriguing). The list is as flatulent and inconsequential as a speech by Donald Trump.
In fact, the symposium that the list advertised and to which it referred was the J. Irwin Miller Symposium on “The Education of Architects in the 21st Century.” What did poor J. Irwin Miller do to deserve such a memorial? True, he was an enthusiast for modern architecture, but it is unlikely his enthusiasm extended to modern architectural prose. He was, after all, educated in the classics.
Presumably, the words on the poster did not assemble themselves: someone must have thought of them and, I imagine, congratulated himself for having done so. The list breathes satisfaction at its own supposed cleverness and profundity, but it is cleverness in search of a subject and profundity without anything to be profound about. One could compile a counter-list of words. At least it would be fun to do so and good mental exercise:
footling pretentious shallow self-regarding narcissistic fraudulent pseudo-intellectual unintelligible complacent self-deceptive trivial time-wasting self-satisfied boastful parasitic pointless irrelevant inconsequential bogus fatuous lazy vacuous vacant vain preening smug worthless preposterous idiotic contentless solemn humourless mind-numbing boring dull insincere inane vapid self-referential fake empty hollow phony aimless half-baked strained artificial asinine stupid self-conscious sententious prim priggish self-congratulatory sanctimonious pious condescending conceited supercilious snobbish superior pompous arrogant unself-critical shameless feeble trite uninteresting self-indulgent dreary insipid tedious lame impoverished futile barren idle platitudinous clichéd wanton capricious trifling superficial self-important pallid prosaic evasive lifeless prolix dishonest self-advertising pussyfooting cowardly non-committal slippery slimy turgid affected contrived vainglorious grandiose
That’s only to begin with. Further and deeper analysis would take up too much space.
My American friend tells me that this poster is among the more lucid of the invitations that he has received from Yale School of Architecture. Alas, if you gave the above list to a thousand people, most would guess that it applied to academics of one kind or another.
First published in City Journal.