Design and Crime
by Hal Foster

(Verso) $23

There was a time when a city could be the capital of a century, the way Paris was the capital of the 19th century. In the 20th century, particularly the second half, cities could only be the capital of a decade--for example, Washington, D.C. was the capital of the '60s, or Los Angeles was the capital of the '80s. The '90s, however, had two capitals: Seattle and New York City.

As with century capitals, decade capitals have clear conclusions. Washington, D.C., came to an end with Watergate; L.A. ended with the Rodney King riots; Seattle ended with WTO; and New York ended with WTC. Now the question is this: What is the capital of this decade? What has replaced New York and Seattle, which recently received its death notice in a Los Angeles Times Magazine article called "The Decline and Fall of Seattle"? Then again, is it correct to assume that a new capital will replace these past capitals? Or did WTO and WTC bring an end to the 500-year history of epoch capitals? Or perhaps capitals in the 21st century will no longer define a decade, but only a year, or a month, or a day in trading?

There are four reasons why I have started my review of Hal Foster's lively new book, Design and Crime, by considering the nature and future of the epochal city: One, it was the German critic Walter Benjamin who in the 1935 exposé for his never-completed Arcades Project proclaimed Paris to be the capital of the 19th century. Two, Design and Crime organizes what is essentially a messy area, the past, into readable historical stages. Three, it locates and mentions Seattle in the progression of these historical stages. And four, it situates our moment as the suspended, unsettled afterlife of the '90s and postmodernism.

Let's begin with Walter Benjamin, who, like Foster, was a critic. (In the '80s, Foster was the editor for Art in America; currently he co-edits the critical journal October, and his critical writing appears in newspapers such as The Guardian and the London Review of Books. In fact, the essays in Design and Crime were art and architecture reviews that initially appeared in those prestigious newspapers.)

Benjamin as a thinker (the best in the 20th century as far as I'm concerned) has exerted enormous influence on Foster. Benjamin takes up the most room in the book's index, and there isn't a chapter where his name doesn't appear or his ideas aren't used. As with Susan Sontag, the other great utilizer of Benjamin's theories and practices, Foster extends and retools Benjamin's methods of criticism for use in what DJ Spooky calls "the age of replication." For Benjamin, art was "inseparable from its environment of technology and social class" (A Dictionary of Marxist Thought), which means he interpreted art in terms of its age, and the age's prevailing technologies and economic systems, and the relationship between the producer of a work of art and a particular stage of economic or capitalist development. Foster, though not a Marxist, has a similar approach to the subject of art and culture, organizing recent art practices into specific historical and economic stages. His career, for example, began famously in 1983 with a book (The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture) that identified the end of an era (modern) and the arrival of a new one (postmodern).

Foster is from Seattle. And although he is now established in the east, it was the Seattle-based Bay Press that published his influential early books, Anti-Aesthetic, Recodings: Art, Spectacle, Cultural Politics, and the Discussions in Contemporary Culture series. In the case of his new book, Seattle is central because of the Experience Music Project (begun in 1995 and completed in 2000) and the Seattle Public Library, which is currently under construction. Foster turns his attention to the architects of these new structures, Frank Gehry and Rem Koolhaas respectively, with Koolhaas faring far better than Gehry. But beyond Foster's negative and positive criticism of these architects is the fundamental fact that both concluded the 20th century with major projects in the last capital of the 20th century, Seattle.

Which brings me to my final point. This book is about the afterlife or aftermath of postmodernism, Gehry, Koolhaas, Seattle, and New York City. In the essay "Design and Crime," for instance, Foster argues that one aspect of our age is that the "constructed subject" of postmodernism has been replaced by the "designed subject" of the "near total system of... consumerism." By this he means a society where "use value" has been replaced by "design value." He writes: "[Design has penetrated everything], whether the product in question is your home or your business"--(Martha Stewart to Microsoft, Foster notes earlier)--"your sagging face (designer surgery), your lagging personality (designer drugs), your historical memory (designer museums) or your DNA future (designer children)." (Design and Crime refers to a mad essay by an early-20th-century Viennese architect, Adolf Loos, called "Ornament and Crime," which declared, among other things, that ornate design was erotic and degenerate --"The first ornament that was born, the cross, was erotic.... A horizontal dash: the prone woman. A vertical dash: the man penetrating her.")

Though all the chapters in the book deal with, in one way or another, the afterlife of postmodernism, it's the final chapter, "This Funeral Is for the Wrong Corpse," that sketches possible ways of "living-on" in the present afterlife. "Maybe, this living-on is not a repeating so much as a making-new or simply a making do with what-comes-after, a beginning again and/or elsewhere." Some people imagine the apocalypse will be one big nuclear bang that obliterates the Earth, or a global holy war that eliminates billions of lives, but maybe it is as quiet as this: just "living-on."

Hal Foster reads at Hugo House (1634 11th Ave, 322-7030) on Sat Aug 17 at 7 pm.

by Charles Mudede