I wanted to write a short parable or mini-roman à clef about a topic that I’ve touched on before. This story is wholly fictional, I assure you.
Once upon a time, in an academy far, far away, there was a small group of people who lived in and loved buildings. But not any buildings. Buildings made out of brick, and only brick. This was the only building material they knew of, and they loved it. Rightly so, even, because their brick buildings were wonderful to behold. They decided together that they should study why and how brick buildings were so beautiful and pleasing. They called what their discipline “Buildingology” — the study of buildings in general. Buildingology was a successful discipline insofar as it produced satisfying and robust stories about how brick buildings came to be, how and why they could be considered beautiful and pleasing, and the history of the variety of bricks utilized in making brick buildings.
One day, some buildingologists heard that there were objects that they recognized as buildings from a country far across the sea. They needed to see this new kind of brick building, to understand it as part of the development of brick buildings (they had a strong suspicion that these buildings (presumably of inferior brick) would be primitive examples of modern brick buildings). So they hopped in a plane made out of bricks, and flew to that distant land.
When they arrived, they were shocked by everything they saw. Not only was the food terrible, the purported brick buildings were nowhere to be found. Rather, they found buildings built out of concrete, buildings made of wood, buildings made of stone, and buildings made of hide. “These are terrible brick buildings,” they thought, “there are no bricks! What a perfectly hideous way to make a brick building.” They spoke to some of the residents.
“Is this a brick building?” the buildingologists asked.
“A brick building?” the residents responded. “No, it’s a concrete building. We use concrete to make buildings. What’s a brick?”
“What’s a brick?!” the buildingologists cried. “How terrible! They don’t know what a brick is.” Oh, how they pulled their hair, imagining a life without brick buildings. “Bricks are so beautiful! And useful! Oh, brick and brick buildings!”
“Tell us what a brick is!” the residents pleaded. “This ‘brick’ stuff must be pretty great if you are so upset!”
“Of course it is,” the buildingologists replied, pulling themselves together. “We’re buildingologists – we study buildings in general, you know – and buildings are made out of bricks.” The residents noticed a slight puffing of the buildingologists chests.
“Oh. See, we make our buildings out of concrete. Our neighbors use wood. There are people who live in the mountains and they use stone. And you use brick?” the residents asked.
“Yes,” the buildingologists replied, “and I assure you all that our brick buildings are quite excellent because bricks are excellent.”
“Bricks,” the buildingologists continued, academically, “are obviously the best building material, when compared to totally brickless concrete. Indeed, bricks are the only civilized building material. Bricks are ideal: you may stack them and produce any shape, you can build ever upwards and outwards, and they are easy to make, portable, colorful, easily adaptable to any situation. Bricks are quite natural too; if you look at the stars, you will recognize many brick-like shapes. If you look at trees, you will see they resemble brick buildings. If you listen to the wind, you will hear that it softly whispers ‘briiiicks’. Bricks are the basic building blocks of our material world, and of this we are quite certain, because we’ve written several large books on the topic. I imagine you can build any of your ‘buildings’ out of brick and improve them.”
“Oh,” the residents replied thoughtfully, scratching their chins. “Well, these are concrete, so they can’t be buildings. What might we call them, then?”
“I imagine we should call them ‘hovels’,” the buildingologists sniffed. “I’m sure we had hovels once, long ago, until we replaced them with brick.”
“Wow,” the residents said. “That must be great, all those advanced brick buildings.” The residents had witnessed their buildings turned to hovels before their very eyes!
“Yes, it is.” Replied the buildingologists, idly buffing their fingernails. “Good thing we figured out this whole ‘building/hovel’ mess.”
They hopped back on their brick plane and returned home, rather assured that buildingology was best served by ignoring hovels.
Okay, so that’s a very badly written parable. I’d like to offer a great little quip that illustrates just this brand of idiocy that I recall from my first year in the Ethno program.
At a seminar about the relationship between ethnomusicology and musicology, a middle-ageish musicologist was (absolutely randomly, as far as I could tell) trying to rebut some weird phantom relativist strawman argument about holding all musics as equally expressive or something by saying, and I wrote this down to be sure:
“Listen, some people say that all architecture is equally useful, keep out the rain and all that. But let’s say there are two buildings in the world: an igloo, and a Romanesque Cathedral. I’m telling you: the cathedral is better. It’s just better. They are beautiful, amazing pieces of architecture! I prefer cathedrals, ok? I think they are objectively better than igloos. I’m sure igloos are nice, though. Can’t I just like cathedrals better because they are better? And if cathedrals are better, then studying cathedrals is more important! Can’t we all agree to these obvious starting points?”
He was so earnest and it was obvious that he truly did believe what he said.
Right after that, I died.