Surplus of Value

At the risk of sounding like I'm in the confessional: forgive me readers, for it has been more than two weeks since my last post. I have been writing other things, all of which have more stringent external deadlines than gang green's guilt-inducing self-imposed deadline. Sometimes my other writing feeds the blog, but not always. You might think that writing other things would produce enough material to fill a blog. It’s just 500 lousy words, after all. How hard is that? In the course of writing anything I pile up heaps of unused words. They just lie there, crossed out yet still present in Word mark-up form, saved as one draft after another. Why can't all those words be re-purposed?

In this way writing is a lot like designing. In both activities you have to generate far more stuff than you will be able to fit into the procrustean frame of the final product. And even the product contains more than you put it in, which is what makes creative endeavors so magical. They make more than they consume. That’s what gives value to art, music, poetry and architecture. Marx and a whole gaggle of political economists have used the phrase “surplus of value” in the context of labor, exploitation, wages and prices of things, but that’s only relevant in an exchange economy. Architecture has a surplus of value; that’s what makes architecture architecture. That value, or worth, can’t be accounted for in an exchange economy; it lives in a gift economy.

I wrote about similar issues coincidentally almost exactly a year ago. That post was more about Jane Jacobs’ guardians and merchants, as described in Systems of Survival, and less about the objects of their respective activities, gifts and commodities. I threatened then to write about gift theory and its bearing on architecture and sustainability at some point in the future...but this is not that point, except tangentially. What I’m struggling with now is efficiency. Not so much personally, but the attempt to plant the value of efficiency, which thrives in a commodity economy, into the unprepared soil of the gift economy. I’m wrestling with the whole uncritical valorization of efficiency in the sustainability conversation without really coming to terms with the consequences. Lurking somewhere at the intersection of our adolescent crush on digital communications and technophiliac greening is a reduction, a devaluation, of the experience of being somewhere. I’ve made the point often that architecture—anything designed, really—is the act of converting natural resources into cultural resources through human ingenuity and technology. If that conversion is judicious, prudent, and conservative—in the literal, not political sense—then it isn’t a reduction but an amplification.

I will admit that this is a pretty inchoate post and that the recent events and conversations that have inspired it remain in my head and thus unavailable for viewing. So, let’s just tie this up with some concise—efficient?—metaphors...A piano reduction is a very efficient way to communicate the basic structure of a symphony, but it should not be mistaken for the complete work, and no amount of imagining the full orchestration can replace the experience. In the same way, viewing a digital slide show of Ansel Adams’ photographs on your IPhone may give you a good idea of what he photographed, but it gives you very little experience of the photographs. For that you have to go somewhere, stand there, and gaze at the real thing. Inefficient, but true.

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