Plumb Lines

February 18, 2010

Blog Update

Filed under: Uncategorized — David Schaengold @ 10:10 pm

You may have noticed that posting has been a bit spotty around here of late. We’re making that spottiness official and going on hiatus. Matt Schmitz and I, however, will continue to blog at another site, the League of Ordinary Gentlemen, and I hope you’ll follow us over there. I encourage you to check out Matt’s first post, which is sure to stir up some controversy.

Thanks for reading!

David Schaengold


February 6, 2010

The Observation Deck and the Modern Cathedral

Filed under: Uncategorized — Matthew Schmitz @ 7:32 pm

Should we start calling post-modern conservatives Observation Deck Republicans? Plumb Liner David Schaengold has his first post up on the League, in which he suggests that the skyscraper may be our modern cathedral:

The greatest of these forms was probably the cathedral in the high and late Middle Ages, which was simultaneously an expression of the aesthetic, economic, and political aspirations of a community as well as an act of humility before G-d, echoing the incarnation by uniting G-d and man. Nowadays we capitalist Westerners have our own entrant, which is of course the skyscraper.

I was initially skeptical. While the medieval cathedral was an expression of the ethic of a whole culture, the skyscraper is a Randian obelisk built for service to a single dominant class. David, however, insightfully discovers both democratic spirit and humility in the observation deck:

Skyscapers are like cathedrals in another way: they contain a place within the building that is natural to treat as sacred. In the cathedral this space was the center of the cross formed by the nave and the transept, and in the skyscraper it is the highest floor of the building. What we use this space for can tell us about ourselves, I think. Observation decks are therefore a symbol of modernity, and an important one. They are open to the public and serve no purpose other than to gratify the mind and the eye with the sight of the city spread out below.

In the comments, Rufus F. asks if the mall may be a similarly important symbol of our age. Another possibility is the one suggested by Barthes, who made this case for the car as cathedral:

I think that cars today are almost the exact equivalent of the great Gothic cathedrals: I mean the supreme creation of an era, conceived with passion by unknown artists, and consumed in image if not in usage by a whole population which appropriates them as a purely magical object.

It is obvious that the new Citroen has fallen from the sky inasmuch as it appears at first sight as a superlative object .. We must not forget that an object is the best messenger of a world above that of nature: one can easily see in an object at once a perfection and an absence of origin, a closure and a brilliance, a transformation of life into matter (matter is much more magical than life), and in a word a silence which belongs to the realm of fairy-tales. The D.S. – the “Goddess” – has all the features (or at least the public is unanimous in attributing them to it at first sight) of one of those objects from another universe which have supplied fuel for the neomania of the eighteenth century and that of our own science-fiction: the Deesse is first and foremost a new Nautilus.

One of the most suggestive things about Barthes’ view is that his cathedral is not a building. An age that finds its embodiment in a mode of transportation is one that seeks to annihilate space and distance, what Walter Benjamin called “overcoming the uniqueness of every reality.” I think the experience David describes on the skyscraper is part of this. Maybe it’s just because I’m afraid of heights, but I’m less likely to find Christian joy at the top of the skyscraper and more likely to find the demon of modernity. The view from the top of the skyscraper is so far beyond human dimension that it carries that sublime feeling of power and danger one might feel while hurtling down the freeway. Of course, looking down from the observation deck is bound to be attractive to both the masses and the elites in our modern age. I, for one, think I’ll stay planted on my front porch.

-Matthew Schmitz

February 3, 2010

Grand Old Disco Party

Filed under: Uncategorized — Matthew Schmitz @ 3:07 pm

Via the Reticulator, I found this post about an article I commented on last week:

Schrager and his partner set up their first nightclub, in Queens, for $27,000. The more famous Studio 54 — or is that “infamous”? — went up for $400,000.

“Now,” says Schrager, a major real estate developer, “with all the regulations, fire codes, sprinkler requirements, neighborhood issues, community planning boards . . . before you even put on the first coat of paint, you’re into it for over a million dollars. What it’s done is disenfranchise young people.”

And it’s not just disco that’s suffered. It’s worth remembering one sad side effect of all the red tape cities and states put up to new enterprises. It leaves the private sector desperate to focus on the surest forms of wealth generation, less able to serve niche markets. Like discos.

I view this as yet another example of the ongoing rapprochement between conservatism and that most fabulous of dance crazes.

-Matthew Schmitz

February 2, 2010

Bill Murray isn’t even that cool

Filed under: Uncategorized — Matthew Schmitz @ 12:39 pm

I think Chris Dierkes (who is otherwise right-on) concedes too much when he says that Bill Murray is “hip” in some of his movies. Sure, Murray starred in several relentlessly stylish films, but his character is almost always distinctly uncool (think Raleigh St. Clair, or, for that matter, Steve Zissou). In no film is Murray presented to the viewer as a paragon of cool in the way a Brad Pitt of Johnny Depp might be. This point is usually lost on haters of Wes Anderson: the films are very very hip, yes, but they ultimately invite us to sympathize with characters too weak and vulnerable to support an aura of cool.

-Matthew Schmitz

February 1, 2010

The iPad: Culture vs. Corporate Cult

Filed under: Uncategorized — Matthew Schmitz @ 11:35 am

For me the word “pad” is most immediately and vividly associated with helicopter landings, floating lillies, and the totally sweet places where bachelors live. Feminene hygiene products don’t really enter into it. When I was in college, I briefly worked for something called Wordnet, a project at Princeton University that seeks to create a comprehensive dictionary based on how people associate words. For example, “light” and “dark” are strong associations, as are “green” and “money” or (at least until recently) “Brad” and “Angelina.” If someone had presented me with the combination of “pad” and, um, you-know-what while I was working for Wordnet, the association in my mind would have been almost zero. Shows how much I know about how the other half lives.

A lot of people think Steve Jobs and co. were as clueless as I was, but I think there’s another possibility. While they may have underestimated the potential reaction, they must have had at least some idea of how women would initially hear the name. In a world where corporations span borders and, in the case of Apple, command loyalties as intense as any country, they perhaps thought that they could change such a powerful resonance. Their belief in Apple’s sterling brand and incredibly successful marketing was so unshakable that they thought they could overthrow the associations the word already had.

The iPad story is not about whether Steve Jobs employs enough women, but rather about how one of the world’s greatest brands foundered on the rock of culture. Long-standing mental associations, those things ingrained by experience in a world that is in some ways common to all and in others fractally diverse — the stuff of Wordnet — were too much for the marketing juggernaut and incredible self-confidence of one of the world’s most powerful corporations. In this sense, the iPad debacle is a victory of culture over corporate cult.

Update: Earlier I said that Brad and Jennifer were, until recently, associated. How could I say Jennifer when I meant Angelina?!

-Matthew Schmitz

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