The Comedy of Survival

Perhaps the major difference between pastoral and picaresque lies in the application each makes of human intelligence. The pastoral intellect uses the rational capacity of the mind to criticize the inadequacies of present experience and its imaginative talents to create alternatives to the present. It is characterized by abstract ideas — truth, justice, goodness, love — intended to lead toward a fulfillment of human potential at some future time. The picaresque intellect instead concentrates upon the study of immediate reality, and its imagination upon the creation of strategies for survival. Picaresque liberty is not escape from misfortune, but confidence in one’s ability to persist in spite of it.

Modern cities, like ancient Rome, are messy, expensive, chaotic, and dangerous. Those who flee them in search of rural peace and quiet are following a pastoral way that Western culture has endorsed since Virgil. The pastoral tradition also makes it plain that this quest is likely to fail, for the seeker of peach and simplicity is likely to carry inner conflict and anger, and these will govern his or her life more than the rural environment will. Escape into fantasies is not a workable solution to urban and existential ills.

What the picaresque tradition in dignity and respectability, it makes up for in clear-eyed practicality. In the picaresque eye, cities and wild places are all full of both danger and opportunity, and wherever one finds oneself is the place where life must be lived as well as possible. Picaresque life is infinite play, with no hope of winning much, but endless enthusiasm for keeping the play alive.

Joseph W. Meeker, “The Pastoral and the Picaresque”, The Comedy of Survival: Literary Ecology and a Play Ethic.


A City is not a Tree

Now, why is it that so many designers have conceived cities as trees when the natural structure is in every case a semilattice? Have they done so deliberately, in the belief that a tree structure will serve the people of the city better? Or have they done it because they cannot help it, because they are trapped by a mental habit, perhaps even trapped by the way the mind works – because they cannot encompass the complexity of a semilattice inany convenient mental form, because the mind has an overwhelming predisposition to see trees wherever it looks and cannot escape the tree conception?

I shall try to convince you that it is for this second reason that trees are being proposed and built as cities – that is, because designers, limited as they must be by the capacity of the mind to form intuitively accessible structures, cannot achieve the complexity of the semilattice in a single mental act.

Situated Knowledges: Prelinger Library

GV: You mentioned “media archeology” and I was wondering if you’re referring to any of Shannon Mattern’s work…

RP: Well, she’s one of the smartest people in the world. What Shannon Mattern does that’s super-interesting is she teaches both urban space and she teaches libraries and archives. And it occurred to me after looking at her syllabi — and I know she’s thought about this a lot, but one model for thinking about archives in libraries — you know, Megan was the creator of the specialized taxonomy for this pace, but in a broader sense, collections are cities. You know, there’s neighborhoods of enclosure and openness. There’s areas of interchange. There’s a kind of morphology of growth which nobody’s really examined yet. But I think it’s a really productive metaphor for thinking about what the specialty archives have been and what they might be. [Mattern’s] work is leading in that position. She teaches a library in her class.

Situated Knowledges, Issue 3: Prelinger Library, Geogina Voss, Rick Prelinger and Megan Prelinger.