The University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture

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fall 2008

ARC 386M:
Housing America: The American Dream

Stephen Ross

"We modify the past as we live our lives."
--Ralph Ellison

"The premises are culture not nature. We must examine the premises behind the practices. Common sense, so called, is frequently 'self interest' masquerading as common sense."
--Thomas McGlaughlin (paraphrase)

This is a 'critical cultural theory' seminar. And as such it encourages each participant to develop their own 'poise' via the development of their own individual critical cultural consciousness. A case will be made that human beings are cultural beings and our collective creation and embodiment of our dominant cultural metaphysic becomes our 'delivery system' ultimately for how we both receive, perceive, and evaluate reality, common sense, and 'goodness.'

The instructor's working definition of culture:

Culture is an all-encompassing webbing of values representing a dominant metaphysic (this includes knowledge, myths, stories, 'common sense,' customs, systems of frames and assumptions) by which a society operates. It is via a cultural worldview in which we determine our sense of self, life, world, and society. Thus, for many people, culture is absolute reality. Wittingly or not, we determine our culture and our culture determines us. Culture is both an instrument and a prison. Both constituted and constituting. A system of 'releases' and 'controls.' We are both emancipated and enslaved by our culture. Our culture both restricts options and encourages actions. Since our culture is an all-encompassing webbing of values, each individual's agency is both enabled and constrained by the cultural system in which they live. Each individual is an agent for their own self-determination through creative resistance to the dominant culture and simultaneously an agent of, and therefore determined by, the dominant culture. Individuals are self-organizing within a dominant cultural system and are simultaneously organized by that dominant cultural system. Culture is a system which both makes experience possible and culture is confirmed by experience. Culture plays a significant role in how both our consciousness and our society are organized. Currently our dominant cultural metaphysic is market culture.

We will spend much time and energy considering the cultural concept, the American Dream. As an enduring instrument of our currently dominant cultural metaphysic, market culture, the American Dream, although it can and does mean many things, becomes a principal delivery system for market culture. And as such, the American Dream becomes a principal determinant (delivery system) for our housing: what gets built/what doesn't, what's considered good housing,/what is not, who gets housing/who does not, and so on.

The American dream is a powerful tool - powerful when we recognize its potency, more powerful when we do not.

Might the myth, the "system," which is the American Dream sometimes emancipate and sometimes enslave; might it be the place where capitalism replaces democracy in a value hierarchy, making us consumers first and citizens second; might it sometimes create markets at the expense of both place and people; might it sometimes be seen as something sacred and beyond question and therefore a very efficient tool for scapegoating, rationalization, and denial of responsibility? Does the abstract structure of the American Dream sometimes prevent, deny, the actual embodiment of it?

As a critical cultural theory course, it is about both premises and established fact. Both provocation and proof. It is hermeneutical: more about questioning than solutions/answers. It asks the questions: How is our reality filtered and framed for us/how is our reality delivered to us?

The student is actively encouraged to debunk 'truths,' so-called. To take conventional wisdom, accepted fact, everyday conventions and 'test' them: put these in service to their own ever-changing, ever-evolving, ever-negotiated agency: their own quest for an authenticity, a system of values, of their own critical creation. As best as possible given the power of the world around them.

This is a critial cultural theory course in architecture about housing. Yet, it is not guaranteed that housing will ever be addressed directly. We will look at architecture and housing not as buildings per se but as culture.

We watch many films, from documentaries to fiction to infomercials documenting various manifestations of 'America' and the 'American Dream,' including such concepts as: 'Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness (Property,) American Democracy, Freedom, Self-Rule, Self-Determination, Individual Rights, Freedom of Choice, the 'American People,' the 'American Way,' 'Land of Opportunity,' the 'Promised Land.' Paying particular attention to where and how these elements are delivered to us. We do the same with music and the web, each also potent delivery systems for cultural values.

From text, film, music, the web: the students write reactions, speak reactions, argue reactions, acquire reactions via classroom, email, and short papers.

All the while working on two parallel projects: 1.) Reacting to the instructor's ongoing presentation to his 'stand:' his position regarding his presentation of the premises. And, 2.) Developing their own 'stand' relative to the development of their own premises; to be presented at the end of the semester as part of a collective public event programmed and designed by the students. Great latitude is allowed students regarding their positions, reactions, and presentations. They are asked only to make their participation compelling and convincing; and to show how it effectively represents the intersection of the 'given' with their own agenda.

Evaluation is cumulative. Whenever a student is concerned with their potential grade, they should ask the instructor. The more typical format of 'assignment followed by grade,' 'assignment followed by grade,' 'assignment followed by grade,' is avoided so as to encourage students to never leave anything behind but instead to 'bring it all forward,' constantly and critically evaluating where they've 'been, are, are going.'

Attendance and full participation are required (each student establishes what constitutes full participation for them: they may be better suited to speak more in class than others, or participate more in email discussions, and so on). This class only meets once a week, therefore: more than one abscence without prior notification to instructor qualifies student for an automatic failing grade, at the instructor's discretion. This is not an arbitrary policing tactic. The quality of this course experience is dependent upon full participation, both for the individual student and the class as a whole. The meaningful discoveries often occur in the 'relating' of the material; more so than from the material itself. And besides, democracy doesn't work without participation (hee hee.)

A sampling of texts, films, music are available upon request. For this or further information: Steve Ross: 512.471.8188 and/or slross@mail.utexas.edu