Today I learned of Arakawa’s death.
With his partner Madeline Gins, Arakawa created many gorgeous pieces of experimental architecture and wrote a number of interesting, challenging books. I have written on their work a few times, and mention it in my one published article on architecture, poetry and ethics. I encountered Arakawa and Gins in a specific moment in Poetics Program history, in the late 90s or early 2000s when they came to visit, lecture and read for a few days. At first, we were all in love with their work.
However, we were surprised at how tenaciously A&G believed that mortal life is inherently immoral, and that to be ethical, one has to at the same time pursue immortality– and how absolutely, how literally they believed that ethicality and immortality could be achieved by living in certain kinds of architectural spaces.
It may be true that architecture bears upon mortality and morality to a degree. A concentration camp supports neither. Tightly enclosed spaces (“the projects,” refugee camps, and other conditions of poverty) lower quality of life and are perhaps partly responsible for people living in such conditions acting unethically toward one another. Architecture that makes one aware of how one’s body moves through space and time may also lead one to think more critically about existence and one’s impact on others’ existence.
But architecture creates neither morality nor immortality, because at the end of the day, bodies and architecture are extricable and one lasts longer than the other. Bodies are mortal; they wear out. Most architecture lasts longer. Sometimes the life of a body can be elongated or curtailed by architecture, but bodies are not designed to last (with our increasing ability to make them last longer, we face increasing diseases of old age). Similarly, the short-circuiting of bodies– chemicals acting in certain ways in certain minds– makes morality really impossible for some people. Bodies matter. The chemicals running through them matter. Bodies are their own complex architectural systems and cannot simply be reworked with new blueprints.
Moreover, the mortality of bodies is the basis for morality. As someone who rarely feels violent, I am probably never going to kill anyone. But if I wanted to kill someone, I would be stopped not by the the threat of reprisal or of consequence (punishment in this or another life), but by my feeling of the absoluteness of that action. If I kill someone, that person is absolutely dead. I am responsible for their absolute death. It is the absoluteness of mortal life that underlines morality. If we were all going to live forever, it wouldn’t matter if I killed someone– they would not die. Similarly, it would not matter if I merely hurt someone, because their memory (bodily or mentally) of the pain would subside in the flow of constant time. There is no need for memory in immortal life.
My impression of Arakawa and Gins is that their work exists in a kind of post-Frankfurt School world where “rational” thought shows the marks of deep trauma. Born in Japan in 1936, Arakawa would have been nine when the bomb fell on Hiroshima (Gins was four). The resulting interest in curtailing mass destruction and violence is certainly understandable (I imagine that anyone reading this would like to avoid such horrible events), and to dedicate one’s creative and intellectual life to increasing ethical awareness and curbing death is admirable. But to deny the value of death is to deny the value of life. We would like to prevent violence because we can be hurt, because we can die. We would like to prevent untimely death; we would like to prevent murder, war, rape, suicide. But if we were not inherently mortal, we would have no need to try to prevent death or to base systems of morality on the prevention of it. Mortality is not immoral; immortality is amoral.