Tall Towers

I continue to be mesmerized by the opening credits to Mad Men. Don Draper’s dapper silhouette falling endlessly past a grid of windows on a Haute-Modernist Skyscraper.

I’ve written before on how this vertiginous fantasy stands-in for our rootlessness. What’s struck me today is that it might also tell us something interesting about why skyscrapers are so tall.

Let’s get past any appeal to the rationale that high “property” values “demanded” tall buildings. Unless we can see through such “pragmatism” we’ll never break out of any of our binds. Why do we value height? A commanding view, a defensible position, far-sight; these all come to mind. They’re related to the same Savannah Ape’s needs that led to the suburb, endlessly repeating “vistas” across greensward “enjoyed” from within a cozy, cave-like interior, seen through the picture-window, opening out of our own private cave.

I don’t know if ritualization around basic needs, – take a look at this eye-opening insight into ritual – or, more accurately, whether fantasies built up around primal desires, always lead to dysfunctional ways of life. I suspect that within the give-and-take of natural constraints this may not be the case – always; but coupled with monomania and abundant energy it doesn’t seem avoidable, at least it hasn’t been up to now.

We spend most of our time doing things out of habit. These habits build into a way-of-life, and before you know it, we have a culture! Our culture reinforces our habits and armors them with all manner of justifications. From within the culture these are unassailable. From without, often they are ridiculous, just look at the costume of a chivalrous courtier, from his long pointy-toes to his many corned hat framing an exaggerated cod-piece. Our laughter at these examples, removed in time or place is easy, not so much when our own cultural assumptions are being “nailed.”

Don Draper, the jumpers on 9/11, they all have something to say about the skyscraper and the culture that’s invested so much in them. As with any aspect of our culture, the hardest part in trying to look past the familiar for the obvious is to absorb their true cost. The pragmatist sees the money-cost of these towers balanced by property values and ROI. As with the rest of economic valuation, this focuses in on culturally accepted minutiae while ignoring real costs and hyping illusory benefits. Tear open these ledgers and it doesn’t take long to see how much these towers really cost us.

So why were they built? Why does the inertia of the juggernaut insist, even as the economic model underpinning them collapses all around us, on building more in ever-more incongruous places to ever-more exaggerated heights? Dubai, as a prime example, a cargo-cult effigy of New York built at the center of a region roiling in the corrupting effects of the Century of Oil.

The graphs on how we are doing all have taken on the hockey stick profile – either that or they’re approaching flat-line. How is it that even in the face of all this evidence we continue to insist to ourselves and each other that things will go on pretty much as they have been?

We are in free-fall. There’s a false security in this condition. So long as we don’t look down. Sure, we’re moving at a prodigious speed, “landmarks” pass us with dizzying rapidity; but we are weightless, and since the fall has outlasted our shock at its inception – and we have yet to have struck bottom – we have a precarious comfort in falling. A seductive comfort that lulls us into a near-euphoria punctuated by moments of renewed terror as we momentarily glimpse our true situation before returning to the numbness of complacence.

Now, we feel that way even on “solid ground.” If our primary condition is one of free-fall, then, how would the powerful strive to improve their conditions? How would our modern-day pharaohs order their world?

While in ancient Egypt their counterparts strove for order and stability, hence the pyramid as their symbolic monument to their desire for permanence; today they strive for ever-taller perches. The tearing anxiety in their gut over their implacable sense of free-fall leads them to try to lengthen the fall as much as they can. Knowing they have no power to change their under-lying condition, they only strive to prolong its duration. The rest of us scramble for as high a floor as we can attain, in the mad hope of following their example, mummified cats, servants in effigy.

Beneath the coupled dynamics of the will-to-control, and this vertiginous sense of free-fall, lies a deeper reality. Every one and every thing in this universe is embedded in the precariousness of hurtling through space and time. It’s called existence, Being. Our habit of problematizing life, a fundamental reflex within the bounding framework of our linear-thinking culture takes this fundamental reality and attempts to “fix” it. In so doing, our existential condition is mirrored, distorted, and we are left to inhabit a dramatization instead of a life. Fearing the fall through space and time that is simply a given, insurmountable within the terms of existence, we build our towers and climb them so as to give ourselves the illusion of a longer fall. In our delusion, maintaining the necessity for this effort, we refuse to measure the cost. As enormous as the externalities we are paying and will increasingly face going forward, perhaps the greatest cost to ourselves is this substitution of a simulacra for a life.

Striving to “jump” out of our embedded conditions we’ve given up on Being, on living, and on being firmly tied within a fabric of life on this fragile, precarious thin epidermis, our sliver of haven bounded by the stratosphere and bathysphere on this tiny little orb spinning through space.

Don Draper falls alone because he refuses to admit his condition. Fall we must, but we do have a choice over whether we fall alone or as part of the structure and web of life that has brought us into being.

Habit is but one of the cocoons we build about us to make ourselves more comfortable. The trade-off is that they insulate us from the realities we intend they protect us from. If we let them, they cloud our view of impending conditions without improving our chances of adapting to them when they finally strike.

Don’t take my word on the dangers of reducing life to a series of problems. Just don’t hide in some habitual cocoon of assumptions. Follow the trail of problems and their erstwhile solutions all the way down, and you’ll see that it does nothing substantive, it offers no worthy or lasting “solutions,” other than giving us taller towers from which to plummet when insurmountable reality finally pushes us off the ledge….

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