Aesthetics Equals Politics: New Discourses Across Art, Architecture, and Philosophy 2018023092, 9780262039437, 9780262351454

How aesthetics--understood as a more encompassing framework for human activity--might become the primary discourse for p

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Aesthetics Equals Politics: New Discourses Across Art, Architecture, and Philosophy
 2018023092, 9780262039437, 9780262351454

Table of contents :
I. The New Foundations of Aesthetic Discourse
1. Introduction
2. Politics Equals Aesthetics: A Conversation between Jacques Rancière and Mark Foster Gage
3. Building and Breath: Beauty and the Pact of Aliveness
Building and Breath
4. A New Sense of Mimesis
The Fracture in Things
Mimesis and Formalism
5. Use the Force
II. Framing the Aesthetic
6. In Pursuit of the Allusive Object
7. Aesthetics Postdigital
System-Oriented versus Object-Oriented Aesthetics
Authors Postdigital
Objects Postdigital
8. The Aesthetics of Abstraction
Ethics, Epistemology, Aesthetics
Aesthetics as First Philosophy
Abstraction and Allusion
“The Redistribution of the Sensible”
Critical Awareness and Aesthetic Abstraction
Abstraction Everywhere
III. Aesthetics and the Politics of Practice
9. Cosmogramic Design: A Cultural Model of the Aesthetic Response
The Black Cultural Cosmos: Perception and Interpretation
Cosmogramma: Survival Value, Resonance, and Conceptual Remixing
The Kongo Cosmogram: Kalunga and Alternate Realities
10. Absolutely Small: Sketch of an Anarchist Aesthetic
Beyond Critique
The Gentle Work of Beauty
The Ridiculous
Sunny Disposition
11. Aesthetics as Alienation
12. Reorienting Criticism: Against an A Priori Reductionism
13. The Unbearable Lightness of Architectural Aesthetic Discourse
Buildings as “Matters of Concern”
The Adventures of Contestation
How to Reinvent Aesthetic Discourse?
IV. Aesthetic Alternatives
14. BigDog, or, The Precarious Aesthetics of Tumbling
BigDog’s Legacy: Anthropomorphic Cybernetic Machines
Psychoanalyzing BigDog: Regression, De-erection, and Part-Objects
15. Feral Architecture
The Feral
Inhabited Surfaces
16. Architecture, Deep and Cryptic
Fissures and Fusions in the Quadruple Object
Connotative Objects
Depth and Crypticity
17. Aesthetic Critique/Aesthetic Activism
Object-Oriented Ontology
Disobedient Artists
Afrofuturism 2.0
Tomorrow’s Thoughts Today
Final Thoughts
18. The Strangers among Us
A Flicker of Intimacy
Interview with a Cat
Between the Individual and Its Concept
Flashing Teeth

Citation preview


A ES T H E T IC S E QUA L S P O LI TI CS New Discourses across Art, Architecture, and Philosophy


The MIT Press Cambridge, Mas­sa­chu­setts London, ­England

© 2019 Mas­sa­chu­setts Institute of Technology All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form by any electronic or mechanical means (including photocopying, recording, or information storage and retrieval) without permission in writing from the publisher. This book was set in Bembo by Westchester Publishing Ser­vices. Printed and bound in the United States of Amer­i­ca. Library of Congress Cataloging-­in-­Publication Data Names: Gage, Mark Foster, editor. Title: Aesthetics equals politics : new discourses across art, architecture, and philosophy / edited by Mark Foster Gage ; managing editor, Matt Shaw. Description: Cambridge, MA : The MIT Press, 2019. | Includes bibliographical references. Identifiers: LCCN 2018023092 | ISBN 9780262039437 (hardcover : alk. paper) Subjects: LCSH: Aesthetics--­Political aspects. Classification: LCC BH301.P64 A39 2019 | DDC 111/.85--­dc23 LC rec­ord available at https://­lccn​.­loc​.­gov​/­2018023092 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1


Preface  vii I



INTRODUCTION 3 Mark Foster Gage






A NEW SENSE OF MIMESIS  49 Graham Harman


USE THE FORCE  65 Timothy Morton







vi Contents III















FERAL ARCHITECTURE  255 Ariane Lourie Harrison






THE STRANGERS AMONG US  301 Caroline Picard


The idea for this book developed during a 2016 symposium that I or­ga­ nized at the Yale School of Architecture titled “Aesthetic Activism.” The symposium sought to ignite an interdisciplinary conversation about the ways in which creative acts can be socially engaged through aesthetic registers rather than ­those of the nearing century-­old positions of critical theory. During that symposium, also applicable to this book, I proposed that the content be understood as an invitation ­toward curiosity rather than indicating the development of any immediately applicable theories or strategies for implementation in any par­tic­u­lar discipline. As an architect, my personal perspective undoubtedly has a disciplinary bias, but the material in this book is intended to have a wider reach into the arts, art history, curation, po­liti­cal activism, cultural studies, philosophy, po­liti­cal theory, and beyond. As such, its contents have been provided by figures from a wide range of disciplines, all united by an interest in emerging aesthetic discourses and willing to discuss how t­hese interests intersect with their disciplines and practices. As is the case with any such publication with limited space, it should be noted that this is by no means an exhaustive study of the figures engaged in con­temporary aesthetic discourses or tangentially related creative practices. Any omissions of seemingly key figures within this larger proj­ect ­were to make room for perhaps less established voices in the interest of unearthing insights perhaps not previously considered. With this book I hope to prompt additional discussion and debate in an effort to reveal new ways in which we all can be more culturally and socially engaged across a vast range of disciplines and practices, via new understandings of the aesthetic. It is all too frequently noted how the development of technology,

viii Preface

and in par­tic­u­lar social media, has and is continuing to rewrite every­thing from our social codes to the physical cities of our con­temporary life. It is the under­lying premise that within this, perhaps, brave new world, the intellectual tools of yesteryear are no longer sufficient to address the opportunities and prob­lems presented to us ­today. As such, my hope is that this book provides, if not the new tools themselves, then at least a starter kit with which they might begin to be collectively forged.


1  INTRODUCTION Mark Foster Gage

It is Aristotle in his De Anima who describes receiving into oneself, through the ­human senses, the forms that produce our very definition of real­ity. While the term aesthetics was introduced through the much ­later eighteenth-­century work of Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten, then greatly expanded by Immanuel Kant, the idea of a discourse predicated on relationships between humanity and the forms of its real­ity has appeared in multiple disciplines over the past two millennia. In this journey through the hands of not only phi­los­o­phers spanning from Aristotle to Žižek, but also artists, curators, musicians, and critics, aesthetics has come into con­ temporary use with a definition that is highly variable depending on its discursive context. The term and accompanying discourse, given this promiscuity, is t­oday used very differently in academic pursuits such as art history, art criticism, philosophy, and architectural theory. To compound the prob­lem, all of ­these meanings are even further distant from the term’s generic use popu­lar in culture as a rubric for nearly all concerns related to visual beauty from makeup and magazines to floral arrangements and fashion. The shifting territory of aesthetic discourse is not entirely a recent development, evidence of which can be found in the nineteenth-­century dichotomous meanings that bookend the gradient of usage through which the term is understood ­today. One side of this equation, perhaps most clearly articulated by Victorian critic and writer John Ruskin, introduced into aesthetic discourse broader questions of morality, often in support of his own devoutly religious themes. The opposing, and slightly l­ater, position was largely defined by secular essayist and Oxford Don, Walter Pater and his infamous protégée Oscar Wilde, where aesthetics as a discourse—­ lending its name to the aestheticism movement of which they ­were a


Mark Foster Gage

part—­was seen to be protected from ethical, economic, or po­liti­cal engagement through being positioned as the autonomous pursuit of  beauty and plea­sure. In this scenario, art, as the primary vehicle of aesthetic content, was intended to resist the pollution of capitalism through being outside of its reach, si­mul­ta­neously worthless and priceless as a means to become proofed against vulgar marketplace consumption. From this mindset, w ­ e’re introduced to Wilde’s famous and revealing quips: “All art is quite useless” and “Art expresses nothing but itself.” ­Here aesthetics was in­de­pen­dent from any form of social, ethical, or po­liti­cal engagement, yet maintained a high degree of cultural significance due to this very capitalistic indigestibility. A ­great many con­temporary critiques of aesthetics and claims of cultural anesthetization at its hands emerge from descendants of this latter position—­namely that aesthetic qualities only form the separate or illusory, often subjective, surfaces of appearance that are separated from deeper epistemological, ethical, or po­liti­cal realities underneath. Aesthetics, in this sense, was dismissed as the mere illusionary discourse whose content obscures the epistemological truths that one must strive to uncover. Holding such beliefs requires, intellectually, the revealing of such obscured realities that exist under­neath ­these aesthetic obfuscations, a sentiment that can still be seen in the work of a ­great majority of living phi­los­o­phers ­today, including notable superstars Slavoj Žižek, through his work on ideology, and Alain Badiou, through his work on the “inaesthetic” and truth procedures. In the arts throughout the twentieth ­century as well as ­today, yet with very dif­fer­ent details, one can also see numerous artistic practices that emerge from a deep history of work that is critical of aesthetic content in ­favor of conceptual ambitions and attempts to uncover “deeper” realities beyond mere appearances. ­These contra-­aesthetic positions have roots, then as now, that lead back to the interwar establishment of the intellectual and neo-­Marxist “Frankfurt School” of thought, named as a result of its association with the Institute for Social Research at the Goethe University in Frankfurt. The “critical” framework of thought (critical theory) developed ­here was formed substantially through the core work of Horkheimer, Adorno, Marcuse, Lowenthal, and Pollock, but echoes of its long-­term impact can be felt far more recently, and perhaps more importantly, through the descendant critical positions of Lyotard, Lacan, and Derrida. In the positions of t­ hese figures, of many pos­si­ble examples, aesthetic concerns, in which repre­sen­ta­tion is often included, w ­ ere again understood as obscuring

Introduction 5

the actual truth of reality, but more specifically the true realities of under­ lying power structures, social, cultural, or economic ones that governed society but ­were invisible to all but the most erudite of intellectuals and intellectually engaged artists. Accordingly, in the twentieth c­ entury, artistic practices became notably, if not always explic­itly, “critical,” in the Frankfurt School sense, and therefore critical, in the popu­lar sense, of aesthetic positions to which they w ­ ere inherently positioned against. This can be seen in the work of impor­tant artists including Roger Brown, Joseph Kosuth, Hans Haacke, and Victor Burgin, to name only a few. While the exact trajectories of ­these institutional and aesthetic critiques are beyond the ambitions of this text, they are significant for helping to define the current status of aesthetics as a now-­controversial topic of inquiry as artists and intellectuals alike perpetuate the use of a critical, counteraesthetic framework to rehearse vari­ous scenarios of proposed po­liti­cal and social engagement. Understanding this uniform seeping of contra-­aesthetic, procritical positions through philosophy, art practices, art history, and architectural theory helps us to now visualize the well-­trodden and impacted dry terrain that the texts in this book seek to disrupt. This collection of texts tracks ­these disruptions from a variety of epicenters: con­temporary art practices, philosophy, gender studies, art criticism, h ­ uman rights, and numerous other emerging, even unnamed, discourses that call for a shift away from such critical theory-based forms of engagement to ones more clearly aligned with a reignited and expanded understanding of aesthetics. Instead of operating as a discourse of obfuscation, or to describe a state divorced from commerce and politics, aesthetics, in this book, refers to a far more encompassing position that receives significant nourishment from con­temporary phi­los­o­pher Jacques Rancière’s concept of aesthetics as the distribution of the sensible, combined with phi­los­o­pher Graham Harman’s development of object-­oriented ontology, an ontological framework that positions aesthetics, literally, as he describes (riffing on Aristotle’s description of metaphysics) “first philosophy.” In this more encompassing framework, aesthetics is beginning to claim the larger territory of relations between the sensible aspects of individual, community, physical, and social life; and accordingly it takes on responsibility as a basis for ­human activity in not only artistic, but also po­liti­cal and social registers. As part of this inquiry, we are asked to consider new creative practices in both physical and intellectual terms, specifically through the aesthetic distances that govern


Mark Foster Gage

what we individually and collectively see, hear, understand, transmit, and can access, but also through the implications of what we cannot. It is in this divide of aesthetic access, between t­ hose with it and t­ hose without it, that con­temporary forms of social and po­liti­cal in­equality are increasingly understood to exist, making aesthetic discourse a fertile territory for the cultivation of new and impor­tant ideas that address h ­ uman rights, social justice, and questions of ontological real­ity and equality. While it is a burgeoning twenty-­first-­century cliché to assume all academic endeavors are the proper vehicles for social and po­liti­cal engagement, it is the case that the aesthetic has a particularly strong claim to such relevance through the combination of the above ­factors and the forms of aesthetic access through which such po­liti­cal relations are now beginning to be understood. While ­these concerns are often spoken of as prob­lems of policy in the po­liti­cal sciences and sociology, they are rarely addressed as prob­lems of postcritical creative or discursive practices. Accordingly, this book speculates about how aesthetics might become the primary discourse for a next generation of social and therefore ecological, spatial, and po­liti­cal engagement. In contrast to commonly held opinions that ­these issues are antithetical to the aesthetic, this book explores the belief that such po­liti­cal and ontological prob­lems might be best addressed, even exclusively, as aspects of aesthetic experience, particularly for creative practices that actively seek to be socially engaged through new formats. This book, as such, is an act of speculation regarding how a reignited discourse of aesthetics and the extended space of its influence can prompt new understandings of not only objects, spaces, environments, and ecologies, but also with each other and the po­liti­cal structures in which we are all enmeshed. It was Michel Foucault who de­cades ago challenged us with his questions: “The central issue of philosophy and critical thought since the eigh­teenth ­century has been: What is this reason that we use? What are its limits, and what are its dangers?” For the aesthetic and spatial descendent of this question, this book ­will take the position that a productive shift is underway that is moving progressive creative practices away from the historic discourses of the conceptual, linguistic, and, as Foucault reminds us, critical, to ­those of the speculatively aesthetic. As such, the book both stands against rote reliance on our existing critical theory–­based strategies that function as in­effec­tive tools for sociopo­liti­cal engagement today, and calls for an

Introduction 7

acceleration of what might be referred to as the shift from the singularly observed “critical” to the collectively accessed “aesthetic.” This may be the latest in a long series of philosophical “turns”—an “aesthetic turn,” as the case may be, that includes, even prompts, a wide array of vibrant new discourses in multiple disciplines. To adopt such a name is intentionally referential, and perhaps even overturns the original developments of the “linguistic turn,” the name coined from the collected essays of Richard Rorty in 1967. While the linguistic turn referred to the perceived idealism-­derived dominance of  language in defining real­ity, such sentiments ­were far earlier articulated by the prescient Wittgenstein in his Tractates Logicio-­Philosophicus as “the limits of  my language are the limits of my world” (1921), or Derrida’s “­there is nothing outside the text” (1967). As such, aesthetic turn might revise, perhaps ironically, the languages of  the linguistic turn in order to propose yet another productive inversion, where “the limits of my aesthetic perception are the limits of my world,” or “every­ thing is outside the text.” An “aesthetic turn” would not then be a new theory, but rather a new intellectual foundation on which new theories for multiple disciplines might be constructed. New directions in aesthetic thought are emerging si­mul­ta­neously across numerous disciplines, forming a vibrant, if yet undomesticated, menagerie of discussions that address a wide range of topics from gender rights and race relations to ecol­ogy to the ontological status of real­ity. ­These include, more specifically to name but a few, ideas of social equidistance, estrangement, dissensus, accelerationism, afro-­futurism, dark ecol­ogy, parafictionality, object-­oriented ontology, and xenofeminism—­the collection of which has the potential to radically reconfigure the intellectual, formal, creative, and professional landscapes of tomorrow. While no singular theory, style, or manifesto seeks to monolithically dominate any of t­hese endeavors, new questions are now being asked about the nature of how we create and destroy, how we connect and exclude, and what new concepts might guide the ­future of our very coexistence. This requires a new weaving together of t­ oday’s most promising social, po­liti­cal, artistic, humanitarian, ecological, and ontological ideas. Such is the goal of this book. This exercise is not without its internal conflicts, for instance with regard to the ongoing inclusion of “beauty” as a subject so historically associated with questions of aesthetics—­a position that is in the positive advocated by contributor Elaine Scarry yet purposely avoided by Jacques


Mark Foster Gage

Rancière. In editing this book, I have chosen to include such conflicting positions in an attempt to prompt broader discussion as opposed to artificially homogenizing the subject, with the belief that ­under such division is a far more impor­tant collective undercurrent worthy of recognition and study. It is my hope that such interdisciplinary conversations can dramatically till the impacted soil of rote critical engagement in ­favor of more experiential creative and philosophical approaches emerging from the aesthetic that empowers a new generation of socially responsible thinking, creativity, and action. Rancière, who features prominently in t­ hese discussions and book, describes the dramatically revised scope of such an aesthetic turn when he writes, “An aesthetic revolution is not a revolution in the arts. It is a revolution in the distribution of the forms and capacities of experience that this or that social group can share.” It is through this new socially and po­liti­cally defined aesthetic framework that this book hopes to address how and why such changes are taking place, and how a recalibration of our very understanding of the world through an aesthetic lens offers a promising ave­nue for a ­future of just coexistence predicated on under­lying assumptions of equal aesthetic access. In this scenario, creative practices are not only suspicious of existing critical theory–based frameworks but also become speculative ­toward the production of new ones—­which explains the title of the book: Aesthetics Equals Politics: New Discourses across Art, Architecture, and Philosophy.


Mark Foster Gage (MFG): A common accompaniment to discussions of aesthetics is the question of distance—­how far the content of the discourse reaches into our lives, and how much it governs our relationships with each other, and between us and our surroundings. This is particularly notable in Kant’s work as he introduces the idea of “disinterestedness,” a required conceptual distance that you need to have from an object in order to judge it aesthetically. For instance, you ­can’t judge a plate of food as beautiful if you are hungry. You need to have a more distant relationship in order to address objects in aesthetics terms. Burke and Aristotle both note that a viewer needs to be located so they can see the entirety of an entity in order to make such judgments, as if you are too close you ­won’t see the ­whole outline, and if you are too far you cannot see its detail. Oscar Wilde and Walter Pater defined the movement of aestheticism as an extreme position with regard to this—­the separating of art from the marketplace and influences of capital, so it was a protected regime of infinite distance between everyday life and the commercial inaccessibility of art. When we talk about the aesthetic ­today in architecture, it is frequently assumed to be in ­these terms of aestheticism—­where it’s only about beauty and frivolously distant from any concerns of real­ity, and certainly politics. It’s not uncommon, accordingly, to encounter the sentiment ­today: “what do aesthetics have to do with architecture?” The reason that I think architects are increasingly developing an interest in your work is that you expanded the aesthetic to include a vaster reach than previously understood. You have intertwined aesthetics, politics, and our understanding of art in a very deep and profound way that many find empowering. Transcribed by Matt Shaw from the Aesthetic Activism Symposium, October 15, 2016, Yale University, New Haven, CT.


Jacques Rancière and Mark Foster Gage

So, I would like to start out with the defining question: if we are not ­going to define aesthetics in the same way as Kant, Burke, Wilde, or other historic figures who made it contingent on specific, or unbridgeable, distances between subjects and objects, or as merely a theory of only art, then can you provide your definition of the aesthetic ­today? Jacques Rancière ( JR): For me, aesthetics is not the theory of art, appreciation of art, or so on. My understanding of aesthetic is twofold. First, the ground meaning of the aesthetic is not about art. It is not art, but it is what constitutes the sensible experience. It is about the experience of a common world. The aesthetic prob­lem is not at all about beauty. It is about the experience of a common world and who is able to share this experience. For me, politics is aesthetic in itself, and in a sense, it was constituted as such before art. It is in politics that the aesthetic question was raised for the first time ­under the form: what kind of sensible common world does politics constitute and who can take part in this world? Precisely, the question is: “who has the capacity to be a po­liti­cal subject and what form of sensible experience produces or forbids that capacity?” Plato says that workers cannot do politics b­ ecause they have no time and they must stay in their workplace. It is clear that the haves and the have-­ nots are both a material and a symbolic position. Plato’s apparent statement of fact (they have no time since work does not wait) is actually a definition: the workers are t­hose who have no time. And “having time” is a mode of being. If you reverse the statement, you can say that politics happens when t­hose whose condition is to have no time take that time that they “have not.” It happens when p­ eople make use of a capacity that is denied to them. In Disagreement, I commented on a modern rewriting of  the secession of the Roman plebeians on the Aventine. In this rewriting, the ­whole debate is about a sensory capacity: do the plebeians speak? Politics is based on the possession of the log­os, which is a capacity to discuss and make arguments, in contrast to the animal voice, which expresses only plea­sure or pain. The argument of the patricians is that t­here is no discussing with the plebeians since they d­ on’t speak; they only make noise with their mouths. The plebeians thus must produce the sensible evidence that they speak. It is the aesthetic ground of  politics. It is not about art; it is about the fact of sharing a common-­sensible world. At the same time, ­there is a historical determination of aesthetics that refers it to art. It is first an adjective defining for Kant the judgment related

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to a specific experience, which is that of  the beautiful. What is in­ter­est­ing is that the emergence of the aesthetic is in fact at the same moment as the emergence of art as such. We know that before this aesthetic moment, art did not exist as a sphere of experience. Art meant skill or know-­how. In the old tradition, ­there was a distinction, separating from the mechanical arts, destined to utilitarian needs, the fine arts—­the arts of imitation, destined for a privileged group of ­people, men of taste. We find ­here the same kind of partition—for ­both material and symbolic—as in politics. In the eigh­ teenth ­century, Voltaire said that men of taste do not have the same senses as ordinary men. Kant’s definition of the aesthetic judgment as a disinterested judgment must be thought of in regard to that old partition. It has often been said that Kant instituted the aesthetic judgment to separate a form of enjoyment reserved to the elite. It is exactly the contrary. He defines a ­human capacity that is common to ­those who ­were previously opposed as the “men of  taste” and the “men without taste.” This is why aesthetics could not be substantialized as the theory or the science of the beautiful. It was the signifier of  a form of  sensory equality, a form of  shared ­human capacity, revoking the hierarchical distribution of the sensible. It is related to a form of experience, not to art as such. But it emerges at the same time when art emerges itself as a form of experience that is no more related to a specific group of  ­people, as the “fine arts” ­were. Art becomes something that disturbs the normal—­the hierarchical distribution of spheres of activity and forms of competence—­and relates to h ­ uman experience in general and a common ­human capacity. This is why ­there could be this strong link between aesthetic revolution and h ­ uman revolution, b­ ecause precisely the aesthetic revolution was the implementation of equal capacity. MFG: One of the lines that ­really clarifies this position is when you write about how social revolution is the ­daughter of aesthetic revolution. Specifically, you write, “The laborer stops his arms in order to let his eyes take possession of the place. This disinterested look means a disjunction between the activity of the hands and the activity of the eyes. We can call it aesthetic experience. And aesthetic experience is not the experience of an aesthete enjoying art for art’s sake. Quite the contrary: It is the reattribution of the sensible. It is the disassociation of the body of the platonic artisan whose eyes are supposed to focus only on the work of  the arms. It is a way of taking time he does not have. This is what emancipation first means. The exercise of equality that is an experience of association of the


Jacques Rancière and Mark Foster Gage

body in space and the time of work.” ­Here, the aesthetic seems to be creating a new type of opening, switching to what you refer to as the “distribution of the sensible,” which this worker exists within. It seems to be an emancipatory, inherently po­liti­cal, moment allowed only through redefining the boundaries of aesthetic experience. JR: In the hierarchical distribution of the sensible, when you are a worker, you have all the senses of the worker. You have the eyes, the hands, the ears of a worker, and of course the mind of a worker. This is what a distribution of  the sensible means. Emancipation is an exercise of dissociation within this normal play of  gestures, attitudes, feelings, and thoughts. In Proletarian Nights, I illustrated this rupture with the dissociation between the hands of the joiner and his eyes in the narration by the joiner Gauny of the day at work. It is impor­tant ­because it is both entirely material and highly symbolic. In this episode, the point is not only in saying that workers are men like the ­others, but also, more precisely, in evincing a capacity that disrupts the evidence of the separation between two kinds of  ­human beings. The moment when I read this text was also the moment when a very influential book appeared, Distinction: A Social Critique of Judgement by Pierre Bourdieu. Bourdieu assimilated Kant’s analy­sis to the elite position of the aesthetes who pretend to make universal statements about the beautiful, in contrast to the ordinary men for whom taste is only about “I like this” or “I ­don’t like this.” He opposed the bourgeois illusion of disinterestedness to the prosaic real­ity in which men—­and notably poor men—­have the taste imposed by their condition. My point was that such a “social” critique is perfectly attuned to the old hierarchical norm: ­people must have the senses that match their condition. Emancipation meant just the contrary: workers stop using their senses as workers must do. This is the aesthetic aspect at the core of  workers’ emancipation. And this is basically what aesthetics means to me. MFG: So t­ here is a paradox between aesthetics being an egalitarian pursuit versus being one that inherently establishes hierarchies. Historically it was defined as establishing hierarchies, associated as it was with taste and power. One of  the ­things that I feel when I read your work is that the conceptual ground of t­ hese power relations are falling out from u ­ nder us. You say that in­equality can only lead to in­equality, and conversely meaning that only a base assumption of  absolute equality can lead to any form of  subsequent equality. That is a very strong claim, especially when talking about

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aesthetics as the proper site for this to be manifested po­liti­cally. It is a core feature of your work, how it weaves together a new understanding of an aesthetics of politics and the politics of aesthetics. I won­der in ­these redefined frames of the aesthetic and po­liti­cal, what would activism imply? JR: Yes, it puts “activism” and “aesthetic activism” in a very strange position. But the main point is not the opposition between “contemplation” and “action.” What Kant—­and Schiller ­after him—­put at the center of the aesthetic experience is not “contemplation,” meaning some kind of elite plea­sure far from the prosaic world. It is “­free play” or the “play drive.” What “­free play” means is not the opposite of action. It is its inner splitting. Action is not simply the fact of ­doing something. It is a category within a distribution of the sensible opposing the “active” h ­ uman beings to the “passive” ­human beings. Again, the affair is both material and symbolic. ­There are two ways of understanding action—­first as the research of a certain end through the choice of appropriate means and second as an end in itself, the demonstration of an autonomous capacity. The so-­called active men w ­ ere ­those who met both requirements while the “passive” men ­were ­people lacking on both sides, ­people unable to pursue other ends than t­ hose of  immediate survival. The aesthetic revolution dismissed the opposition of the active men and the passive men on the side of the “end in itself.” As is defined by Schiller, ­free play is an activity that is an end in itself but it is also an activity available to every­body. And it can also be thought of as a mode of collective action. The f­ree ­people, the antique Greek p­ eople, is a playing p­ eople, says Schiller. It is a p­ eople whose mode of action is not separated from the ends of  its actions. We must not forget that it is in the same terms that the young Marx defines communism. Communism is the form of collective existence where workers no longer work to earn their livings but to deploy the productive and social capacities that are inherent to humanity as such. This is what I mean by the “inner splitting” of  action. It opposes action as an end in itself  to the utilitarian and the strategic models of  action that ultimately come down to the same hierarchical model: t­here are t­hose who make useful t­hings with their hands and ­those who take care of  the ends of the community. MFG: Was this the cause of your intellectual break with your mentor in philosophy Althusser? His position required the idea of the elite scholar leading the ignorant out of their suffering.


Jacques Rancière and Mark Foster Gage

JR: ­There w ­ ere two stages. I broke with Althusserianism on the basis of the Maoist Cultural Revolution, opposing the intelligence of the masses to the idea of the avant-­garde whose science must ­free the ignorant from the traps of ideology. Then I realized that the opposition of two intelligences was still part of the inegalitarian world view. But what is at stake h ­ ere is not the privilege of intelligence and knowledge. It is the privilege of  “action” that was still more deeply rooted in the tradition. Only active men w ­ ere recognized with the privilege of conceiving the ends of an action or acting for the mere sake of deploying their capacity. The workers ­were the “passive” men b­ ecause their activity was supposed to be only in the realm of immediate needs and their satisfaction. What was in­ven­ted with the emergence of the aesthetic was a form of inactive activity or active inactivity that blurred the old hierarchical distribution of activities and capacities. MFG: Speaking of action—­you have also written about dance and cinema not as the apotheosis of action, or movement, but also its inhibition. To scale that up to an urban scale, we could look to the philosophy of the Situationists and the concept of the derive, where one is intended to misuse the city in a par­tic­u­lar way. You write about not just taking action in urban settings, but also inhibiting it as an act of politics. So you reference the Istanbul “Standing Man,” the Beijing “Tank Man,” and Occupy Wall Street. ­There is a po­liti­cal power in the misuse of what a regime declares an urban space to be in terms of  the Distribution of  the Sensible. The million-­ dollar question, especially for ­people who design, is then, is the po­liti­cal action always the misuse of something that exists, or can ­those ideas be inherent in the pro­cess of the design? Does po­liti­cal action always come ­after the ­thing already exists, or can po­liti­cal intent exist in the pro­cess of creation? JR: It is a big question of course. MFG: The biggest. JR: If we think in terms of space, the basic form of détournement is the barricade. The nineteenth-­century barricade is blocking the street. It is not useful from a military point of  view. Strategically, if  you block the street, it is a m ­ istake ­because, yes, it is a war against the government or the army, but it also prevents you from g­ oing forward and attacking. So the barricade was an occupation of the street that was at the same time the constitution

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of  a p­ eople, to the extent that it disrupted the normal distribution of  spaces: the streets are made for circulation. The workers, instead of  being at their right place—­the workshop, blocked them with the stones of  the pavement, the carts destined to carry commodities, and the furniture thrown out of the win­dows of the ­houses. The po­liti­cal act is a suppression of  the segregation of spaces. This blocking of the street was pres­ent in the Occupy movement. Occupation in this case was a détournement in regard to the normal form of protest that consists of marching in the streets. Protest blocks the streets but it is still attuned to the normal; this blocking is a specific way of subverting the normal use of the street, which is circulation. What was impor­tant in Occupy Wall Street was the decision of  staying and discussing instead of walking and shouting. The same inversion was at work in the case of the Standing Man. As a performer, he did something that was attuned to the po­liti­cal form of  the occupation of  an empty place that the plans of the government wanted to transform into a place for business. His per­for­mance consisted in d­ oing nothing, in staying immobile. This kind of  per­for­mance produces an effect of disorientation. The police ­didn’t know what to do with this guy ­doing “nothing.” Is ­there a possibility of  a subversion of the urban space directly produced by architectural design? It seems to be that architecture t­ oday is in a strange situation in regard to the idea of  “subverting” the space. It thinks of subversion in terms of opposition to its tradition, which is to construct solid ­things that occupy the space. I am looking at architectural proj­ects and architectural discourse from the outside. I am struck, however, by the emphasis of so many architects on the idea that they must mobilize. They think they must not do solid t­ hings and block the space, but that they must make the space more mobile. It is fascinating. I was looking at the proj­ects from the Architectural Imagination (at the 2016 Venice Architectural Biennale), which are concerned with the transformation of some places in Detroit. I know they are “conceptual” proj­ects, destined to create a new “meta­phor of the city” rather than positively rearranging the urban space. I was struck, however, by their obsession about mobility. ­There are notably ­those proj­ects of transformation of the area of the Old Post guided by the idea that this Old Post is a barrier separating the city from the river. We must go across. In short, a building is a barrier and architecture is given the task of getting across. In the same vein, ­there is the strange proj­ect of this spiraling parking, which at the same time is a space for circulation and


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engenders—­out of this movement, as it ­were—­other spaces and notably cultural amenities while being constantly run across. ­There was another proj­ect with a bunch of pavilions and pergolas that are supposed to create a porosity between the inside and outside with the idea that the distinction between inside and outside must be overcome so that ­people move. I was also struck by the architect’s interest in se­nior residences, and proj­ects of se­nior residences where moving is made difficult with this idea that the se­nior must not relax, that they must make efforts and meet difficulties. The idea of an architectural subversion has always had something contradictory. Architecture has often been, in modern times, a way of clearing space and clearing the streets. It was so first with urbanization against the street war, like in Haussmann’s Paris. All architectural utopias and proj­ects ­were proj­ects of streets, but kind of deblocked streets. ­There is the famous example of  Le Corbusier’s proj­ects superimposing a space of ­free pedestrian movement over a space of f­ree traffic for cars. Constant and the Situationists criticized Le Corbusier but with the same obsession of  spaces than cannot be blocked. From that point of view, ­there is a contradiction between the utopian proj­ects by Constant a­ dopted by the Situationists and the derive, which is a way of moving at random in the old town inherited from the surrealist tradition. MFG: Is that utopian strategy just a speculative re­distribution of the sensible? JR: No, I think ­there is a strong architectural utopia, the idea of creating a space of equality by creating a space of mobility, a space with no barriers (which also means no barricades). I was struck by the texts of many architects ­today and their obsessive use of this catchy concept of “porosity.” The curators of that exhibition at the Biennale made some strong statements about the idea that a city with porous walls is a city that promotes equality. MFG: One might trace that par­tic­ul­ar idea of porosity as it descends from the Frankfurt School’s influence on the profession—­and the idea that the architect’s job is to, accordingly, reveal the inequalities or reveal the social prob­lems by creating openings where p­ eople see such prob­lems. This is an ingrained critical theory stance within architecture that insists that po­liti­cal action is contingent on awareness, and that architecture can make

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one aware. You have been very critical of this idea of the Frankfurt School and critical of the idea that raising awareness is a form of engaged action. As you note, I think rightfully, raising awareness ­doesn’t require action. Architecture is still modeled on being socially active by raising awareness, with this false hope of that being a form of  po­liti­cal engagement. ­There are, perhaps, other tactics. One ­thing I read in your book that is coincident to what we are talking about ­here, especially in the work of Michael Young, is the topic of estrangement. You have this beautiful phrase where you talk about estrangement as “the subtraction of meaning, the giving back of innocence to the capacity of  seeing.” This is a very dif­fer­ent ­thing from a critical intervention. It is the opposite of  awareness, and instead is alienation. It is not revealing a prob­lem that you see; it is producing a questioning of  meaning, which, perhaps, allows you to rewrite some new equation for real­ity or some new distribution of  the sensible. Might estrangement play a role in your ideas of  reconfiguring the distributions of  the sensible? JR: What the idea of the distribution of the sensible implies is that an art always does something ­else than its proper business. At this point, it may meet the paths of emancipation, since emancipation means that you stop ­doing just your “own business.” The aesthetic is not the same as the artistic. The artistic is about the implementation of an idea. It implies some kind of anticipation of  the result, which may be put to the extreme in the case of  po­liti­cal art. Instead the aesthetic means that you ­don’t exactly know what ­will be the effect of what you are ­doing. This is the core of the Kantian disjunction: the form that is perceived is not the same as the form that is planned. So, architecture has always been at the same time about making buildings and planning towns, but also about conceiving utopias and making drawings that are just drawings and narratives about space and fancy architecture, like, for instance, El Lissitsky’s Prouns, which are creating not buildings, but symbols of a new life. I have always been fascinated by the role of the oblique line in Soviet architecture at the very beginning of the Revolution, as if it w ­ ere a m ­ atter of creating a kind of space that is no longer a hierarchical space, but a movement throughout the sky and throughout the ­future, which means that ­people are equal ­because they are inhabiting the ­future and no longer inhabiting the pres­ent of oppression or the pres­ent of strug­gle. This means that architecture in modern times has taken up the idea of being not only a knowledge destined to building, but


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also an instrument for the reform of perception. Architecture is not only supposed to construct units for inhabiting, but ­really constructing new senses of seeing, working, acting, and feeling. This is where it meets the critical tradition and notably the concept of estrangement. What is in­ter­ est­ing about estrangement is the way the meaning of this concept was overturned. Shklovsky had defined it as the proper operation of art freeing the object from all the mechanisms of ordinary perception. So, estrangement meant, at the very beginning, that we are in front of something that dismisses all interpretation. Critical art, or the critical turn, wanted precisely to change the very meaning of estrangement so that estrangement was something to be interpreted: you see something strange and you look for the reason of that strangeness, in the Brechtian tradition that strangeness points ­toward social contradiction and social strug­gle. So not only does estrangement demand interpretation, but the interpretation is equated with the awareness of a situation and this awareness itself is supposed to bring energy for fighting. In the case of the Frankfurt School, this function of estrangement is disconnected from the idea of giving energy, from action. It becomes ­really a position of distance in relation to the world as it goes. It is no more directed ­toward action, but rather it defines a position of distance with this idea that the strange ­thing is a revelator, but what it reveals is the inhumanity of the system as well as the vio­lence underpinning its apparent harmony. It is something that is easy to put in the realm of fiction in theater or lit­er­a­ture or in visual art, with the risk of only revealing something that every­body knows. In architecture, it is quite difficult. If  we set aside some forms of architectural counterutopias such as the Slave City ­imagined by Atelier van Lieshout, what does it mean exactly to reveal something by the way of architecture? Ultimately, critical architecture only reveals that ­there is nothing to reveal, as is the case with the famous Blur Building by Diller Scofidio + Renfro. So, you are expecting something, and ­there ­will be nothing. In this case, what is supposed to be critical is that ­there is nothing: it is said to be critical of the fact that you are expecting something. MFG: But that ­doesn’t institute any change, it is just raising awareness. JR: I think that it d­ oesn’t institute change. Rather it points to a certain idea of architecture becoming a critique of itself. “I ­don’t build anything” is the first aspect of the critique. Or I build a t­ hing that is nothing, which is just

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b­ ubbles or just w ­ ater. And t­here is this comment by Charles Renfro saying, “You go to the cafeteria and you can drink the monument, b­ ecause the monument is just w ­ ater.” In the end, it is difficult to think that something is ­really revealed in this. It is difficult to reveal something by the way of architecture or of design. In my view—­a view from the outside—­that emphasis on critique and revelation was—­for me, from the outside works as a kind of endless refutation of  functionalism, as if constructing nonfunctional ­things was a self-­critique of architecture. The prob­lem is that this self-­criticism is viewed from a narrow ­angle: the ­angle of the critique of functionalism, as if the modernist proj­ect of architecture could ­really just be epitomized in the idea of function. But the modernist paradigm was not simply about function, or the relationship between form and function. It was a much wider proj­ect. MFG: This wider proj­ect includes the experience of space as walking, standing, sitting, looking, and seeing, as you have implied. The architect of this building where we are having this discussion is Paul Rudolph, who, around 1960, would have been designing this iconic room, Hastings Hall. That was fifty years ago, and he has determined where you enter, where you descend, and where you turn left—­all fifty years ­after he designed it. From the distant past, he is telling our and ­these bodies how their posture should be, how they can move, and how they should behave. ­There is an incredible amount of power in that level of control over p­ eople’s actions over time. A very frustrating ­thing for architects is that this seems like a very power­ful po­liti­cal power, but architects have r­ eally not come up with a strategy to effectively harness it socially or po­liti­cally. Modernism had a lot of the ambitions ­toward equality that you discuss, but has been a­ dopted now by a luxury class, and it never ­really produced the equality that it sought to. It may have something to do with the functionalism you mentioned. JR: It is not so clear ­because first, functionalism is an ambiguous term. “Form follows function” can be understood in a very narrow utilitarian sense and evoke authoritarian ideas such as t­hose that ­were embodied in this room. But, at the beginning, it meant simply that architecture was not destined to make beautiful t­ hings for the plea­sure of aesthetes, but to serve life. That is why this princi­ple was affirmed by thinkers and artists who are readily seen as romantic “aesthetes” like Ruskin and the Arts and Crafts


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designers. They pitted use—­a certain sense of  life—­against utility. Architecture was the “aesthetic” art par excellence precisely ­because it was at the ser­vice of  life. “Life” and “use” belong to this body of concepts that characterized a certain view of equality, beyond class divisions. But ­there are two prob­lems: The first one is how you define life. The second one is how you think about the relationship between the intentions incorporated in designing and the way it ­will be used, the form of  life that it produces. MFG: That is actually one way you defined architecture. You said it was (and you said it in the past tense, which I found in­ter­est­ing) not only supposed to build new buildings, but it was also a new way of inhabiting—­a new way of  life. It w ­ asn’t supposed to reveal the prob­lems of this world, but set the format for the world you want, as I believe and think this discussion is largely about. JR: Yes, certainly. I think that the ­actual idea of critical architecture follows the failure of the proj­ect of architecture reshaping the very forms of  life and instituting some form of equality. R ­ eally, I think that the core prob­lem with architecture is not the idea “form follows function,” but the idea that use follows design, the negation of the gap between the artistic form produced by the w ­ ill of an artist and the aesthetic form related to the sense of life of ­those who experience it. This idea that design determines use is at play even in antifunctionalist proj­ects. One always blames Le Corbusier and the straight residential complexes built by his followers. But the forms of architecture and urban planning that w ­ ere conceived against his “functionalist” princi­ples obeyed the same idea that use follows design and sometimes they produced still more disastrous effects. We have a famous case in France with the city of La Grande Borne in the outskirts of Paris that was conceived as an anti–­Le Corbusier way of dealing with architecture: no big buildings, no straight lines, and only small buildings, with curved lines and many colors, dif­fer­ent kinds of units, many useless places and artifacts, and a vast green space in the ­middle left to the imagination of the inhabitants. It has become the worst neighborhood in France with the highest rate of vio­lence, drugs, and crime. It is the place where the terrorist who attacked a cashier store last year in Paris was born and raised. Of course, you cannot say it is the fault of the architect’s utopia. But at the same time, you see the shortcomings of the idea that the designer of a residential space can

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determine its use. The use was determined by the kind of persons—­poor ­people, unemployed ­people, and then mi­g rant workers who lived ­there. At this point, we meet the prob­lem of  the egalitarian purposes of  architecture. I think that it evinces a kind of  double bind. On the one hand, t­ here was this architectural dream to promote equality though design and through building. But equality cannot be a product; it must be a point of departure. That is the first point. The second point is that, in architecture, this idea of promoting equality through design was based itself on a certain sociology. Architecture was part of this big proj­ect with the genius architects of the Werkbund and the Bauhaus, for example. But this big activist proj­ect of  reshaping all forms of  life was more or less based on the idea that equality was brought by the social and economic pro­cess itself. This idea was very power­ful in the so­cio­log­i­cal tradition: the idea that modernity means a homogenization of the conditions of life, which means equality. This is why it was pos­si­ble for Le Corbusier to at the same time do cities for workers and villas for cap­i­tal­ists with the same material and the same princi­ples. This is the idea that modern socie­ties are more or less heading ­toward a certain form of uniformization of conditions. The architectural dream—­I think—­was based on this idea that equality comes by itself, by the very pro­cess of modern life. It was the presupposition even ­under Marxist theory that equality is marching with the transformations of production. We know now that was not at all the case. Buildings that ­were supposed to promote equality w ­ ere based on this idea of modernization. And now ­those cities are just ghettos for drugs, criminality, and now terrorism. This is not a critique of architecture, but the point is that it is not a question of functionalism versus nonfunctionalism. It is this double relation or double play with equality. MFG: Your writing addresses vari­ous historic regimes in aesthetics. It seems that architecture would always be a product of the dominant regime by virtue of its cost and its complexity—­the sheer concentrated power required to produce it. Do you think that architecture, like art, can be the vehicle to challenge the dominant regime, when it is generally the dominant regime that is the producer of architecture? JR: I think that ­there has been, historically speaking, an involvement of architecture in transformations of the form of  life in a revolutionary sense.


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MFG: You reference Peter Behrens in some of your books. What is your interest in his work and would you say he was engaged in such transformations of the form of life? JR: I was interested in Behrens not ­because he was a champion of equality; he was not. What interested me was that as a conception, this big factory was a kind of t­ emple of  ­labor and indicates on its façade that it is not simply architecture, or simply functional. It is part of an organ­ization of  life. I think ­there was something that was shared in fact, at that moment, by both Soviet revolutionaries, and by German architects and designers who ­were not revolutionaries but shared the same idea of a culture of use-­value opposed to the culture based on exchange-­value and exploitation. This was a certain so­cio­log­i­cal dream and also a certain dream of architecture and design. MFG: The idea of architecture being complicit in producing a new condition of life reminds me of  what you have written about Rosa Parks. For me, along ­these aesthetic lines, it’s pos­si­ble to imagine that Rosa Parks was occupying two worlds at once: one where she ­couldn’t sit in certain parts of the bus and another in which she could. I think the critical ambitions of architecture would say, “Reveal the prob­lems of this world and show that inequalities exist.” What you are calling for is the idea of architecture as possibly producing a new condition of  life. If  Rosa Parks was just being critical, it would have required no action, perhaps only protest. Instead she did not merely critique the existing situation, and instead chose to produce the world she wanted to exist—­and she sat in a place where she ­wasn’t allowed to sit. That was an assumption of equality on her part: an assumption of a new world she wanted to occupy. ­These are the questions for many of  us: Can architecture fulfill that role? Can architecture sit in the dif­fer­ent part of the bus and produce the kind of world we want to live in? Is this a form of  aesthetic activism?” JR: Well I think it is quite complicated. I think architects need to give the answer. ­There is no reason ­really or no necessity to reveal in­equality. The basis of emancipatory thinking is not that in­equality exists b­ ecause p­ eople ­don’t know about it. Every­body knows about in­equality. The question is not revealing in­equality. Critical art and critical thinking are always revealing in­equality. Emancipation starts at the moment when it is not revealing in­equality, but affirming equality. So making equality live in the

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world of in­equality. Rosa Parks did not reveal in­equality. Who could ignore it? She just affirmed equality by sitting where she was not allowed to sit. This supposes a certain mobility both in the use of a space and in the use of symbols that does not seem to fit easily the mode of existence of architecture. Aesthetic activism ­today is about disturbing the uses of space rather than modeling spaces. We talked earlier about the Occupy movement or the Standing Man. We can also think of the Institute of Artivism that was started in Cuba by Tania Bruguera. I think it in­ter­est­ ing that the same artist had made, some years ago, the per­for­mance called Tatlin’s Whisper. The very title is a reference to the architectural dream that was part of the artists’ involvement in the Soviet Revolution. But precisely if the “artivist” proj­ect still is about the erasing of the frontier separating art and life, it is no more about building towers or tribunes getting into the sky. It is about disturbing the distribution of  spaces. Tatlin’s Whisper was first performed as an artistic per­for­mance at the Art Biennale in Cuba. That was a per­for­mance of  ­people coming to institute ­free speech in Havana. One of them, in a flash, emitted the wish that, in the f­uture Cuba, ­free speech ­will no longer be an artistic per­for­mance. L ­ ater on, Bruguera deci­ded to transform the per­for­mance into a “real” action in a public square, but it was prohibited by the police. What interests me is the practice of  affirming that ­free speech exists b­ ecause we make it. It is not simply proving that it d­ oesn’t exist. P ­ eople know they d­ on’t have f­ree speech just like they know they ­don’t have equality. Perhaps aesthetics is about this. It is not about producing an effect of  revelation. It opposes the old practice of po­liti­cal art, which is supposed to produce some effect of awareness, revelation, and denunciation, for example, which, in a way, is an attempt to predetermine and predate some kind of technical effect of art, even if it is a crazy attempt. Of course you can imagine many kinds of po­liti­cal art that are just destined to prove that ­there is no ­free speech in Cuba. It becomes an aesthetic effect when ­there is a demonstration of existence, not a demonstration of inexistence. MFG: You write about disciplinarity quite a bit. That is something we think about a lot in an architecture school, in par­tic­u­lar ­here at Yale in our own architecture building with our own discipline. Recently t­ here has been some discussion on the value of disciplinary distinctions. It’s very fash­ion­able to speak of interdisciplinarity, multidisciplinarity, and


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transdisciplinarity t­oday. T ­ here is a lot of discussion h ­ ere about our discipline—­for instance, w ­ hether ­there is an architectural canon and if we should teach from such a canon if it does exist despite its formation through patriarchy and privilege or if should we get rid of the idea of an architectural canon altogether. You talk about the poetics of knowledge, and I won­der how the concept of a discipline is in itself in conflict with such a poetics of knowledge. Or is ­there a relationship where one can be transferred into the other? How does one move away from a disciplinary way of transferring knowledge from teacher to student? JR: It is a very complicated issue. Regarding the poetics of knowledge, it is the same as with emancipation: it cannot be institutionalized. We must get rid of this idea that ­there should be some kind of right way of practicing a discipline or of teaching, or of organ­izing education. But no, emancipation says that ­there is no right way. ­There is no right point of departure. What is striking is that often so many reforms of education that want to be ­really liberating are still in fact, authoritarian. They say, “This is the way ­things must be or­ga­nized. This is the real point of departure. You must not start teaching from this point, but from this point.” The poetics of knowledge says that you can learn from a multiplicity of places and ways, once you know you have abolished the idea that ­there are two kinds of intelligence. The question of knowledge is in fact a twofold question. B ­ ehind the idea of knowledge and discipline, ­there is not only the idea of a body of knowledge and how you w ­ ill transmit this, but t­here is also the idea of a hierarchical division. ­There are ­those who know and ­those who ­don’t know, which means that t­here are two separate forms of intelligence. You cannot ask the institution as such, to abolish that division. But t­hose who live in the institution can do it. I mean that they can separate the pro­cess of sharing their knowledge from the presupposition of in­equality. This is what emancipation means. You can do a lot of  ­things in an institution from the point of view of emancipation but you cannot emancipate an institution. This is the same prob­lem when it comes to the relationship between the idea of discipline and the idea of the poetics of  knowledge. The poetics of  knowledge skips over the frontiers of disciplines. It is not interdisciplinary. It is nondisciplinary. The idea of a discipline implies that t­here is a specific field with specific borders and a specific methodology and that t­ here are t­hose who are inside and ­those who are outside. Depending on the

Politics Equals Aesthetics 25

disciplines, the combinations of  the princi­ple of specificity and the princi­ ple of exclusion can be very dif­fer­ent. But in all cases ­there is a contradiction between discipline and poetics of knowledge. This means that you cannot reform an institution according to the idea of the poetics of  knowledge. But, on the other hand, you need this idea to break the “natu­ral” alliance of the princi­ple of  specificity with the presupposition of in­equality. MFG: Continuing in this line of thinking, you w ­ ere teaching at the Eu­ro­ pean Gradu­ate School and wrote about their decision to grant degrees and essentially become more like a traditional university. Were you hoping that it would become something dif­fer­ent? JR: Well I was not so much involved in the Eu­ro­pean Gradu­ate School. It was a strange institution, kind of a f­amily institution; it was all led by one person who invited lots of so-­called ­great thinkers and radical thinkers. So the board was always impressive. What was in­ter­est­ing is that the students ­were not ordinary students, but ­people involved in dif­fer­ent practices of  art, or research, sometimes engineers, or p­ eople ­doing a lot of dif­fer­ent t­ hings. So they came to hear [Slavoj] Zizek or [Alain] Badiou. But they ­were ­there on the basis of  their own curiosity, and not with the idea of  having degrees. So this diploma was worth nothing on the academic market. But it is a prob­lem to have ­people paying you for a diploma that is worth nothing. So they deci­ded to create a PhD and started a pro­cess of normalization with a new administrative staff. This also affected the professors. The last time I taught t­here, six months before, I received some guidelines with requirements concerning the title of the course, its progression, the syllabus, and so on, and then I received reprimands b­ ecause I was late. So I called the director and said, “That is fine, but I w ­ on’t come.” And he said, “No, come, that is nothing. ­There is no point.” But I felt it was a new era that was coming. Now t­here are diplomas. It does not mean that every­thing has been normalized. Even though they want diplomas, the students come t­ here first ­because they are curious ­people and have questions that come from their own practice as artists or researchers. But it has become closer to the double logic that is at play in universities. A school or a university is ­doing dif­fer­ent ­things at the same time. Giving diplomas is one ­thing. Giving the students the possibility to pro­g ress as researchers is another t­ hing. The thinking of emancipation asks us to maintain the two ­things apart from each other though they are done at the same time.


Beauty may suddenly surface anywhere—in an arrangement of clouds in the sky, in the weave of threads in a fabric, in a mathematical equation, or in a child’s face. Over many centuries, phi­los­o­phers and poets have repeatedly identified the relationship between the beautiful and the perceiver of that beauty as a life pact. When Homer’s Odysseus first sees the beautiful child Nausica, he marvels at her newness and newbornness, describing himself as having been rescued from the man-­killing sea. ­Shouldn’t this sense of  rescue have arrived earlier when—­ruthlessly hammered by ocean waves—he first sees land? It does not: then he perceives only the absence of any harbor and the impossibility of getting safely into shore, “certain ruin” amidst sharp crags and sheer rocks. Nor does he have any sense of rescue when he at last finds himself on the beach: as he lies t­ here, exhausted, he calculates that his only alternatives are two methods of ­dying—­either remain on shore and succumb to freezing temperatures or crawl to higher ground and be consumed by wild beasts. Only when beauty enters Odysseus’s field of vision—­only when he sees Nausica—is he suddenly filled with the felt experience of his own aliveness. This bond between the beautiful and the affirmation of life, announced by Homer in the eighth-­century BCE, rhythmically returns across the centuries: St. Augustine describes ­music as a “life-­saving plank in the midst of the ocean;” Dante sees the face of Beatrice and writes La Vita Nuova, The New Life; Kant emphasizes the presence in beauty of the “alive” throughout the Third Critique of Judgment;1 and Rilke hears emanating from the “Archaic Torso of Apollo the injunction, “You must change your life.” Anthropologists find the same “life pact” in non-­European cultures (one Native American group, asked about the word for “beauty” in their


Elaine Scarry

Figure 3.1 Sebastião Salgado, “Rwandan Refuge in Benako Tanzania, 1994.” Getty Images.

language, answered, “alive”2), just as scientists note its mysterious presence in the biology of life that underwrites all cultures (symmetry, so often placed at the center of the beautiful, takes an extreme form in the Y chromosome of h ­ uman reproduction; of its seventy million DNA sequences, six million are palindromes, their letters reading identically forward and backward3). Among art forms, architecture provides a ready confirmation of the association between beauty and the life pact. The simplest instance of architecture is the ­human shelter, which, even in its most minimal form—as documented in Sebastião Salgado’s Migration photo­g raphs (figure 3.1)—­transforms its h ­ uman occupant from a subjugated creature to one who is f­ ree, from a person mercilessly subject to open skies and open eyes to one who can regulate her own desire to be now alone, now in ­human com­pany, now open to sun and rain, now in a small enclosed atmosphere of her own choosing. When Salgado’s photo­graphs ­were first exhibited, they w ­ ere often criticized for their g­ reat beauty—­that beauty seeming out of place with the level of adversity they recorded. But it was precisely their arresting beauty

Building and Breath 29

that awakened viewers for the first time to what is only now, two de­cades ­later, widely understood: hundreds of thousands of ­people are currently on the move across the face of the earth. Public health physicians differentiate between narrative compassion and statistical compassion:4 we are as a species fairly good at empathizing with a story about one, two, or three p­ eople, but our capacity for compassion dis­appears when we are asked to understand something about thousands or tens of thousands of ­people, the numbers to whom we are responsible in po­liti­cal life and the numbers pres­ent in Salgado’s numerically astonishing Migrations series: thousands of p­ eople are pres­ent in his picture of a Rwandan camp in Tanzania, for example. At a moment when Western culture often criticized beauty as a middle-­ class preoccupation, Salgado’s photo­g raphs made obvious what never should have been obscure: ­there is almost no income level and no level of ­human adversity where beauty ceases to be lifesaving. His Migrations series was accompanied by a second series called The ­Children, individual portraits that he promised the c­ hildren he would take if they would relinquish their urge to dance in front of his lens while he was attempting to take the migration images (figures 3.2, 3.3, and 3.4). In the ornaments and fabrics they wear, the call of beauty is steadily vis­i­ble. A boy from the Sudan wears a string around his neck with a shell at the center. An Indonesian girl in a Cambodian refugee camp wears a fragile necklace and around each wrist a bracelet. If asked about her bracelet, she might, like Augustine, explain that it is a lifesaving plank in the midst of an ocean—or if not a plank, a thread, a splinter, a tiny talismanic filament registering the possibility of landfall. The shawl covering the head and shoulders of the child in Bihar, India, would provide some protection even if it ­were blank and unornamented, but it is not unornamented: its weave of throbbing zigzags affords heightened protective power, just as do the palindromes sequences in the Y chromosome.5 How literal is this claim about beauty’s lifesaving power? In 1984, an issue of Science reported the results of a study in Gothenburg, Sweden, by a professor of architecture, Roger Ulrich: hospital patients whose win­dows looked out on nature recovered from operations more quickly, and required less pain medicine, than patients whose win­dows faced brick walls.6 By 2012, more than twelve hundred studies had confirmed the power­ful effect of beautiful hospital design (“daylight,” “views of nature,” “good acoustical environment,” “single-­bed room”) on the speed of healing and repair, as well as its profound effect on the staff.7 As


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Figure 3.2 Sebastião Salgado, “Child, Natinga School Camp for Displaced Sudanese, South Sudan.” Getty Images.

a result, many architectural magazines and medical magazines then published articles naming the ten—or fifteen, or twenty-­five, or forty—­“most beautiful hospitals” in a given country. A hospital might seem an odd candidate for a beauty contest, ­until one remembers that embedded in “competition” is the phenomenon of “emulation,” an agreed-­upon good that the contestants collectively aspire to bring into being.8 A striking instance is a hospital design by Moshe Safdie in Serena del Mar, Columbia, where the central arcing corridor ­houses a delicate bamboo

Building and Breath 31

Figure 3.3 Sebastião Salgado, “Child in Cambodian Part of Detention Camp for Boat ­People, Galang Island, Indonesia.” Getty Images.

forest. Five buildings extend from this bamboo corridor out into the bay, and the rooms in each building overlook a “healing garden” (figure 3.5). While Moshe Safdie has many exquisite small buildings (a public library in Utah, the Peace Institute in Washington, D.C., a memorial to the courage of soldiers in South Carolina, the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Arkansas, a chapel on the Harvard Business School campus), he is an architect whose life work has been centrally committed to the prob­lem of statistical compassion—­a recognition that often ­people ­will choose to


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Figure 3.4 Sebastião Salgado, “Child Orphan, Center for Orphans from the Tribes from Southern Bihar, Bihar State, India.” Getty Images.

Building and Breath 33

Figure 3.5 Moshe Safdie, Serena del Mar Hospital, Cartagena, Colombia. Getty Images.

live, or w ­ ill have to live, in dense concentrations—­hundreds, or even thousands, occupying a single cluster of buildings. Habitat 67 in Montreal, the first proj­ect for which he became renown, sought to assure sunlight and air to the crowded occupants, just as now, five de­cades ­later, his “Singapore Sky Habitat” provides ­those who dwell in its 509 apartments with “aerial streets and gardens”9 (figure 3.6). The place of beauty and the pact of aliveness in architecture stands forth most clearly whenever conditions are potentially dire, as when ­people are dangerously ill or dwelling in the midst of high population density (­whether due to migration or opulent urban concentration). Does this lifesaving work of beauty apply to work spaces as well as homes and hospitals? Does a laboratory dedicated to finding new medicines also improve its chances of fulfilling its mission if it is beautiful? Mark Fishman, the founding president of Novartis Institute for BioMedical Research (the arm of Novartis Phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals devoted to drug discovery) thought so when he invited Maya Lin and Toshiko Mori to design the com­pany’s US campus in Cambridge, Mas­sa­chu­setts, and Yung Ho Chang to oversee the design of the campus in Shanghai, China. Aliveness is announced in the


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Figure 3.6 Moshe Safdie, Sky Habitat, Singapore, roof deck. Getty Images.

buildings’ exterior features (for example, Kengo Kuma’s moss-­covered origami roof on Building 7 in Shanghai; or in Cambridge, Maya Lin’s lacey granite curtain prompted by the appearance of coral and bone ­under a microscope, and intended to echo New ­England stone walls and provide nesting sites for birds10), as well as in their internal design (the honeycomb railings, cell pockets, and eyelash shades in the Shanghai buildings; the snail-­shell spirals, dinosaur-­and-­DNA evolutionary ornaments, and sunlit elm-­wood forest glade atrium in Cambridge). Ugly spaces are punishing, as mass incarceration cells announce so brazenly; they inhibit healing and rejuvenation. When a prisoner in Guantanamo was asked by a Red Cross worker if she could bring him anything, he quietly answered, “a photo­graph of a flower.”11 An inmate in a ­women’s prison in Romania told a visiting scholar how the w ­ omen ­there survived: they would take silk and nylon threads from their undergarments and weave for one another tiny one-­inch by one-­inch tapestries.12 Beauty pageants (sometimes based on inmates’ physical features, sometimes based on clothing design) now regularly take place in ­women’s prisons all over the world, in Brazil, Peru, K ­ enya, Lithuania, Rus­sia. Denmark’s Horsens

Building and Breath 35

prison—­and other Scandinavian prisons—­have started a revolution in prison architecture that has begun to spread to other countries, the link between spiritual growth and beauty’s affirmation of life once more confirmed. It seems clear, even self-­evident, that (despite the longstanding taboo on the word “beauty” in many architecture schools) h ­ ouses, hospitals, laboratories, and Danish prisons announce in their formal design the connection between beauty and the life pact. Is it ­really fair to claim, however—as the title of this chapter does—­that the beauty of buildings is linked to breath? ­Because of their solidity, buildings seem far removed from breath. BUILDING AND BREATH

Many forms of art are directly connected to breath. Poetic meter can accelerate the reader’s heartbeat and breathing. ­Music can as well. Tolstoy’s Nicholas—­distraught a­ fter recklessly gambling away a huge sum—­loses consciousness of every­thing but his ­sister’s voice as through a narrow opening in the door he watches Natasha sing: “What is this?” thought Nicholas, listening to her with widely opened eyes. “What has happened to her? How she is singing ­today!” And suddenly the ­whole world centered for him on anticipation of the next note, the next phrase, and every­thing in the world was divided into three beats: “Oh mio crudele affetto.” … One, two, three … one, two, three … One … “Oh mio crudele affetto.” … One, two, three … One. “Oh, this senseless life of ours!” thought Nicholas. “All this misery, and money, and Dolokhov, and anger, and honor—­it’s all nonsense … but this is real.  … Now then, Natasha, now then, dearest! Now then, darling! How ­will she take that si? She’s taken it? Thank God!” And without noticing that he was singing, to strengthen the si he sung a second, a third below the high note. “Ah, God! How fine. Did I r­ eally take it? How fortunate!” he thought.13

The connection between breath and creation is affirmed in other art forms. Theater and dance both require live—­breathing—­performers. Films rec­ ord the breath of living actors. Novels and short stories provide a mimesis of breathing persons. But buildings? And yet the central proj­ect of building is inseparable from its relation to air. Samuel Taylor Coleridge has written a poem about architecture, “Kubla Khan.” Strange and marvelous, it seems to describe a building


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without pre­ce­dent or parallel; yet si­mul­ta­neously, it folds into its lines the aspiration of all civilization: In Xanadu did Kubla Khan A stately pleasure-­dome decree: Where Alph, the sacred river, ran Through caverns measureless to man Down to a sunless sea. So twice five miles of fertile ground With walls and towers ­were girdled round; And ­there ­were gardens bright with sinuous rills, Where blossomed many an incense-­bearing tree; And ­here ­were forests ancient as the hills, Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.

The poem reverberates with echoes and voices. The Travels of Marco Polo, written in the year 1300, contains an architectural description “Of the Palace of the ­Great Khan” (Book I, chapter 10) that anticipates in its astonishing details the poem written almost exactly five hundred years l­ater: Coleridge’s “So twice five miles of fertile ground/With walls and towers ­were girdled round” re-­enacts Marco Polo’s account of  “a square enclosed with a wall … eight miles in length,” containing in turn a smaller square and both enclosed within a larger square, just as Coleridge’s “And ­there ­were gardens bright with sinuous rills” re-­enacts Marco Polo’s “within the royal park are rich and beautiful meadows, watered by many rivulets.” “Kubla Khan” scholars have identified a magnificent array of sources across East and West and across a vast expanse of time, the Bible and the Qur­an prominent among them. One of the most revelatory sources emerges in the final section of the poem: A damsel with a dulcimer In a vision once I saw: It was an Abyssinian maid And on her dulcimer she played, Singing of Mount Abora. Could I revive within me Her symphony and song, To such a deep delight ’twould win me, That with ­music loud and long, I would build that dome in air,

Building and Breath 37 That sunny dome! ­Those caves of ice! And all who heard should see them ­there, And all should cry, Beware! Beware! His flashing eyes, his floating hair! Weave a circle round him thrice, And close your eyes with holy dread For he on honey-­dew hath fed, And drunk the milk of Paradise.

According to Romantic poetry scholar Jack Stillinger, Coleridge’s line, “I would build that dome in air,” echoes Michelangelo’s famous announcement that in building the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica, he would outdo the Roman Pantheon by building the dome in air.14 ­Whether Michelangelo ever actually uttered such a boast is unknown. What is certain is that scores of writings (over the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eigh­teenth centuries) attributed the statement to him. The boast—­“I would build that dome in air”—­expresses an aspiration vis­i­ble in almost any building that rises above the ground. The one-­ thousand-­foot-­high Eiffel Tower provides a paradigmatic instance since it seems at home in the sky, despite the fact that it is composed of eigh­ teen thousand metallic pieces, 2,500,000 rivets, and 7,300 tons of metal (figure 3.7).15 Structural engineer Stephen Ressler poses a riddle: if one ­were to collapse down all the metal of the Eiffel Tower into the space of the tower’s own footprint, how high would the pool of metal be? The answer to the riddle: “­under three inches.” What lifts the three-­inch pool into the sky is an endlessly repeated structural unit, the truss or open triangle—­si­mul­ta­neously one of the strongest and airiest of building forms (figure 3.8). It has assured the stability of structures from Roman roofs through the ceilings of medieval cathedrals to modern bridges, towers, skyscrapers, and space stations.16 The many-­century-­long aspiration to lift structures into the air can perhaps best be appreciated by noticing that the improbably strong open triangle is pres­ent not only in the structures left standing in the air but also in the very tool that lifts ­those structures into the air, the crane. A familiar feature of ­every twenty-­first-­century city from Shanghai to Chicago are clusters of cranes rising above the tallest skyscrapers, their delicate tracery of trusses able to lift men and materials high into the sky (figure 3.9). (And though it is not a crane that lifts the space stations into the sky, the launch gantry itself usually has a truss structure.)


Figure 3.7 Eiffel Tower with man. Getty Images.

Figure 3.8 Eiffel Tower truss structure. Getty Images.

Elaine Scarry

Building and Breath 39

Figure 3.9 Skyline with cranes. Getty Images.

But it is not just men and materials whose weight must be held. It is the weight of the air itself. Buildings must sustain the unchanging weight of their own stone, steel, wood, or concrete ele­ments (called the “dead load”), as well as the weight of the ­human beings that inhabit them or, in the case of bridges, the trains and cars that pass over them (called the “live load”). But they must also accommodate the weight of the shifting winds that can play upon them like musical instruments or introduce a degree of flutter that ­causes them to flap and fall, as in the famous instance of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, which tore itself apart by twisting and turning in a seemingly benign 40-­mile-­per-­hour wind (a bridge made vulnerable b­ ecause the trusses had been eliminated from the original design and replaced with closed girders17). Ascending winds, horizontal winds, perpendicular winds, or quarterly winds can lift,18 overturn, or slam to the ground a structure whose design wrongly presumes the air w ­ ill be forever still: that is why William LeMessurier’s visually breathtaking Citycorp building in Manhattan—­its fifty-­nine stories stationed not on the ground but lifted high into the air on nine-­story-­high stilts—­underwent eight weeks of secret, middle-­of-­the-­night structural revisions when its architects discovered its design could not withstand the high winds destined to hit its corners.


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Architectural structures, especially t­hose whose height or horizontal span is unusual, are so regularly in conversation with the wind that they should perhaps be thought of us sails—or the mirror inversion of sails, since they must evade the wind and stand still rather than catch the wind and move forward. The sail-­like structure can be seen if we turn back to the buildings we earlier encountered. Gustave Eiffel said of his tower, “Before coming together at the high pinnacle, the uprights appear to burst out of the ground, and in a way to be s­ haped by the action of the wind.” His statement may make it seem that the tower’s “wind-­burst appearance” is an appearance only, when by his own report (as well as by the analyses of ­later physicists), virtually e­ very feature of the tower was determined by Eiffel’s calculation of wind re­sis­tance: it is “designed so that the maximum torque created by the wind is balanced by the torque due to the Tower’s weight.”19 It can remain upright and in place during eight-­hundred-­kilometer-­per-­hour winds (nearly four times the speed of the fastest moving air arriving in Paris in a given year).20 Facing the wind, too, is the constellation of buildings designed by Moshe Safdie in Chongqing, China (figure 3.10). Enclosing nearly ten million square feet of living and work space, the proj­ect addresses the prob­lem of extreme population density with statistical compassion. But it also addresses the neighboring air and sky. Although milder in its weather than many northern cities, Chongqing recently suffered—in one twelve-­hour period—­ forty thousand lightning strikes,21 and more recently still, a tornado and gale force winds caused the collapse of one thousand homes.22 The new Moshe Safdie proj­ect is located on a triangle of land where the Yangtze River and Jialing River converge; its eight towers are clearly presented by the architectural firm to the public as “the shape of sails upon the ­waters.” The buildings do indeed resemble a fleet of schooners ­under full sail. When skepticism is pronounced about “the real­ity” of someone’s aspiration, we often say that the person is “building c­ astles in the air.” This locution is strange given that ­castles, as well as many other buildings—­houses, skyscrapers, towers, and suspension bridges—­actually are built in the air, the air with which they are in constant interaction. The central building proj­ect of Odysseus, too—we at last arrive back at our starting place—­entails the making of a raft and a sail, for he ­will be blasted by “­every sort of wind”: “Together the East Wind and the South Wind … and the fierce-­blowing West Wind and the North Wind.” Gustave Eiffel reported that each point on his tower was derived from a mathematical calculation that accommodated with precision the entry and exit of the

Building and Breath 41

Figure 3.10 Moshe Safdie, Raffles City Chongqing, China (“observation section” removed). Getty Images.

wind, and he added that the completed form derived from t­hese mathematical calculations would immediately convey to onlookers a vision “of strength and beauty.”23 In The Odyssey, Homer writes as though “beauty” is the very material out of which the act of construction takes place. Building starts with a raw material that has already proven its ability to climb into the sky, to reach high into the air, a tall grove of trees, but Homer’s account of the tools and the timber so stresses their beauty that beauty seems the very “stuff ” out of which the raft is made. [The goddess] gave him a g­ reat axe, well fitted to his hands, an axe of bronze, sharpened on both sides; and in it was a beautiful ­handle of olive wood, securely fastened; and thereafter she gave him a polished adze. Then she led the way to the borders of the island where tall trees ­were standing, alder and popu­lar and fir, reaching to the skies, long dry and well-­seasoned, which would float for him lightly.

Even when the trees have been felled, even in a horizontal position, it ­will be as though they still reside in the air, for they w ­ ill “float for him lightly.” Homer’s salute to the aesthetic continues in the stress on the skill of the maker and the fit of the made ­thing:


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But when she had shewn him where the tall trees grew, Calypso, the beautiful goddess, returned homewards, but he fell to cutting timbers, and his work went forward apace. Twenty trees in all did he fell, and trimmed them with the axe; then he cunningly smoothed them all and made them straight to the line. Meanwhile Calypso, the beautiful goddess, brought him augers; and he bored all the pieces and fitted them to one another, and with pegs and morticings did he hammer it together. Wide as a man well-­skilled in carpentry marks out the curve of the hull of a freight-­ship, broad of beam, even so wide did Odysseus make his raft. And he set up the deck-­beams, bolting them to the close-­set ribs, and laboured on; and he finished the raft with long gunwales. In it he set a mast and a yard-­ arm, fitted to it, and furthermore made him a steering-­oar, wherewith to steer. Then he fenced in the ­whole from stem to stern with willow withes to be a defence against the wave, and strewed much brush thereon. Meanwhile Calypso, the beautiful goddess, brought him cloth to make him a sail, and he fashioned that too with skill. And he made fast in the raft braces and halyards and sheets, and then with levers forced it down into the bright sea.24

The final material, fabric, is twice handled, delivered by the beautiful hands of the island nymph, then fashioned into a sail by the skilled hands of the hero. Even ­after the storms destroy the raft and sail, an improvised sail—­a veil given to him by a sea goddess—­will assist Odysseus in making it into shore, for he places the cloth beneath his breast to buoy him as he swims.25 Soon he ­will see Nausica, and ­after many further strug­gles (and seventeen books) he ­will eventually reach his “high-­roofed ­house.”26 Calypso herself makes the connection between the two buildings, between the raft and the “high-­roofed ­house” to which Odysseus longs to return. But the connection is made even more dramatic in Carol Dougherty’s The Raft of Odysseus: The Ethnographic Imagination of Homer’s Odyssey. Though Odysseus marvels at architectural achievements throughout his travels,27 only two building proj­ects are his own: the raft in Book 5, and then, climactically in Book 23, the fixed bed—­his retrospective description of the bed and bedroom he made at the beginning of his marriage; it is only now, as Penelope hears him speak (“it was I that built it and none other”), that she recognizes her husband. Odysseus’s description of his making of the bed closely duplicates the language of the making of the raft:28 [F]or a ­great token is wrought in the fashioned bed, and it was I that built it and none other. A bush of long-­leafed olive was growing within the court, strong and vigorous, and girth it was like a pillar. Round about this I built my chamber, till I had finished it, with close-­set stones, and I roofed it over well, and

Building and Breath 43 added to it jointed doors, close-­fitting. Thereafter I cut away the leafy branches of the long-­leafed olive, and, trimming the trunk from the root, I smoothed it around with the adze well and cunningly, and made it straight to the line, thus fashioning the bed-­post; and I bored it all with the augur. Beginning with this I hewed out my bed, till I had finished it, inlaying it with gold and silver and ivory, and I stretched on it a thong of ox-­hide, bright with purple. (Book 23, lines 186–202)

Unlike the raft, the bed is stationary: its steadfast location validates for man and ­woman the steadfastness of their partners. But like the raft, it has a vertical post or mast; and in its bright purple thong, it, too, has a sail. Saint Augustine claims that beautiful ­music is a lifesaving plank in the midst of the ocean. Is the opposite true? Is a raft floating high above the ocean floor—or a building that lets its occupants sleep on a bed floating five or six hundred feet above ground (as though balanced on the tip of a ­giant grove of trees)—­a piece of ­music? Coleridge’s Kubla Khan claims that his dome suspended in air ­will be a direct translation of the song sung by a maiden with a dulcimer, and the description of architecture as stationary m ­ usic—­first made by Madame de Stael29 and reiterated by J. W. Goethe, Friedrich Schelling, and Walter Pater—­has since been credited countless time. The small truss that repeats endlessly upward throughout the Eiffel Tower is like the metrical unit of a poem; the six chevrons that carry the weight of LeMessurier’s Manhattan building securely down to the central pilings are like stanzas suspended on a page. Over the course of civilization, buildings have often been said to have their own voices. Prehistoric Stonehenge (some of whose stones weigh twenty-­five or fifty tons and whose name means “suspended stones”) hums a certain low note according to ­those who live in the region;30 scientists claim that its twenty-­five-­ton stones, mysteriously transported from Wales, ring like bells when struck.31 Moving 3,500 years forward in time, the Irish monastery of Clonmacnoise is constructed in such a way that a sentence whispered against the wall at one end of the building reaches an ear positioned against the wall at the other end, a feat that recurs 1,300 years ­later in the archway of H. H. Richardson’s Sever Hall (Robert Venturi’s candidate for “most beautiful building”32). The crystallographer William Bragg directs attention to the steady low-­frequency hum in any modern city, a phenomenon that comes from the fact that low pitches have long sound waves that can sweep round building corners whereas the small waves of high pitches cannot.33 A truss (that first showed up on Earth in the rigging


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of a sail34) might seem to be voiceless, w ­ ere it not for the fact it is the central compositional unit of most twenty-­first-­century cell phone towers. The voice of beautiful architecture—­hum, whisper, or chime—is like the voice of beauty in all the arts and in nature. It is a call to repair the injuries of the world, including injurious architecture, like the unrepaired infrastructure of a country that for the seventy years of the nuclear age, without consulting its own citizenry, dedicated the “common wealth” of that citizenry to weapons rather than to the upkeep of schools, roads, and bridges; to savagely ugly mass prisons dedicated to racist suffocation rather than to egalitarian inspiration; to the rubble of foreign cities leveled by US-­instigated wars; and ­r unning below all ­these ­others, a vast subterranean architecture undergirding ­every country on the globe and prepared at any moment to let a tiny handful of men retract life from all ­human beings as well as ­every other species on Earth. It even stands ready to erase the sky. Nuclear architecture is the most extreme instantiation of the asymmetrical and thus the most complete inversion of beauty that has ever existed. It is a radical nullification of the life pact. Architects have no more obligation to dismantle this arrangement than do all other men and ­women; they do, though, have a special ability not shared by o ­ thers, the capacity to bestow visibility on structures that are invisible to the rest of us. NOTES

1. ​Rudolf A. Makkreel stresses the importance for Kant of the association between beauty and aliveness in Imagination and Interpretation in Kant: The Hermeneutical Import of the Critique of Judgment (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), 11–12n7, 87, 89, 92, 100, 101–104. 2. ​Francesco Pellizzi, Response to author, Conference on “Facets of Beauty,” Institute for Advanced Study, University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, Indiana, January 22, 2010. 3. ​Mario Livio, The Equation That C ­ ouldn’t Be Solved: How Mathematical Genius Discovered the Language of Symmetry (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), 5. The palindrome structure compensates for the fact that unlike other chromosomes, the Y chromosome is not composed of a pair (another form of symmetry), which ordinarily enables a chromosome to borrow letters from its twin when in need of repair. In effect, theY chromosome contains its own twin, enabling it to resist damage and mutation. 4. ​The term “statistical compassion” was in­ven­ted by Walsh McDermott, a physician in the department of Public Health at Cornell Medical.

Building and Breath 45 5. ​See Sebastião Salgado, Migrations (New York: Aperture, 2000) and Sebastião Salgado, The ­Children (New York: Aperture, 2005). 6. ​R. S. Ulrich, “View through a Win­dow May Influence Recovery from Surgery,” Science 224, no. 4647 (1984): 420–421. 7. ​Nathan Stall, “Private Rooms: Evidence-­Based Design in Hospitals,” Canadian Medical Association Journal 184, no. 2 (2012): 162–163. 8. ​Brook Hindle in Emulation and Invention (New York: New York University Press, 1981), a book about the invention of the telegraph and the steam engine, reveals this impor­tant understanding of what we often disparage as “competition.” 9. ​Jessica Mairs, “Moshe Safdi Completes Singapore Sky Habitat Featuring Aerial ‘Streets’ and Gardens,” Dezeen, February 9, 2016, https://­www​.­dezeen​.­com​ /2016/02/09/sky-­habitat-­moshe-­safdie-­architects-­singapore-­housing/. 10. ​Maya Lin mentioned her hope to attract nesting birds to the Chelmsford granite screen in a panel discussion I attended on the building’s architecture (with Toshiko Mori, Mark Fishman, and landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh; Novartis Lecture Hall, summer 2017). All other details enumerated h ­ ere are mentioned or photographed in Mark C. Fishman, Lab: Building a Home for Scientists (Zürich: Lars Müller, 2017), 196, 207, 265, 269, 311, 353. Mark Fishman conceives of the laboratory as a cross between “a monastery and a space station,” and above all as a work of art. Even the basement of the Shanghai campus basement, designed by Philip Yuan, is described by Fishman as echoing “a Chinese landscape painting of the Ming dynasty.” Though open and spare, the interior spaces of the two campuses are ornament rich, and since the purpose of the beautiful detail is to prompt creativity, t­here is l­ittle division between ornament and function: the gardens are ­there, for example, both for plea­sure and as a reminder of the origin of ­great medical discoveries in the plant world (47–81). 11. ​Conversation with Red Cross field worker, International Committee of the Red Cross, Geneva, Switzerland, June 26, 2017. 12. ​Conversation with Cipriana Petre, , Conference on Pain and Beauty, Robinson College and Center for Research in Arts, Social Sciences, and Humanities, Cambridge University, Cambridge, UK, May 21–22, 2010. 13. ​Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace, trans. Louise and Aylmer Maude (Minneapolis: First Ave­nue Editions, 2016), 352. 14. ​Jack Stillinger, “ ‘Kubla Khan’ and Michelangelo’s Glorious Boast,” En­glish Language Notes 23 (September 1985): 38–42. 15. ​­These construction details are provided on the official website of the Eiffel Tower https://­www​.­toureiffel​.­paris​/­en​/­the​-­monument​/­history, as is Gustave Eiffel’s statement (quoted below) about the tower’s wind burst appearance. 16. ​Stephen Ressler examines many dif­fer­ent forms of the truss (such as deck truss, lenticular truss, space truss) in Lectures 7, 16, 17, 19, and 22 of his course


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“Understanding the World’s Greatest Structures: Science and Innovation from Antiquity to Modernity,” The ­Great Courses, 2011. 17. ​Ressler, Lecture 16, “Understanding the World’s Greatest Structures.” In this same lecture, Ressler gives an account of the near catastrophe with LeMessurier’s Citycorp building. An interview with the architect is available at https://­www​ .­youtube​.­com​/­watch​?­v​=n ­ jeC1RmrWJo. 18. ​For example, a tornado that touched down in Iowa and Illinois carried a twenty-­ton ­house twenty feet in the air above a stand of trees. James Mackintosh, “The Iowa and Illinois Tornado of May 22, 1873,” Quarterly Journal of Science 43 no. 1874: 386. 19. ​Joseph Gallant, “The Shape of the Eiffel Tower,” American Journal of Physics 70 (February 2002): 160. 20. ​Gallant, “The Shape of the Eiffel Tower,” 160. 21. ​“Worst Storm in 115 Years Lashes Chongqing,” China Daily (reprinted from Shanghai Daily), July 18, 2007. The precise count of lightning strikes is given as 41,672. 22. ​AFP, “26 Dead as Tornado Hits China,” Express Tribune, May 6, 2010. 23. ​Eiffel cited in Gallant, “The Shape of the Eiffel Tower,” 161. 24. ​Homer, The Odyssey, trans. A. T. Murray (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1919), Book V, lines 234–261. 25. ​Homer, Odyssey, Book V, lines 348–376: “Come, take this veil, and stretch it beneath thy breast. It is immortal; ­there is no fear that thou shalt suffer aught or perish. But when with thy hands thou hast laid hold of the land, loose it from thee, and cast it into the wine-­dark sea [350] far from the land, and thyself turn away. … Then straightway he stretched the veil beneath his breast, and flung himself headlong into the sea with hands outstretched, ready to swim.” 26. ​Homer, Book V, line 116. 27. ​For example, Odysseus marvels at the Phaecians and the palace of Alcinous: “And Odysseus marveled at the harbors and balanced ships, at the marketplaces of the heroes themselves and their walls, high and tall and fitted with palisades—­a won­ der to look at” (Book 7, lines 43–45). Cited in Carol Dougherty, The Raft of Odysseus: The Ethnographic Imagination of Homer’s Odyssey (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 102. 28. ​Dougherty, Raft of Odysseus, 179. 29. ​While the formulations by Goethe, Schelling, and Pater are widely known, I am grateful to Wikiquotes for alerting me to Madame de Stael’s introduction of the idea. 30. ​Thomas Hardy, a lifelong resident of Dorset, E ­ ngland, memorializes the voice of Stonehenge in Tess of the d’Urbervilles, a claim whose accuracy some m ­ usic scholars are now investigating.

Building and Breath 47 31. ​Robinson Meyer describing work of archeologist Tim Darville and a proj­ect on Stonehenge at the Royal College of Art headed by Paul Deveraux, in “Are Stonehenge’s Boulders Actually Big Bells,” Atlantic, March 5, 2014. 32. ​Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, Architecture as Signs and Systems: For A Mannerist Time (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2004), 36. Venturi designates Sever Hall “my favorite building in Amer­i­ca.” 33. ​William Bragg, The World of Sound: Six Lectures Delivered before a Juvenile Audience at the Royal Institution, Christmas, 1919 (London: Bell, 1921), 22, 76. Bragg also provides an explanation for the whispers that travel along the wall of Clonmacnoise and the archway of Sever Hall (though his example is the “Whispering Gallery” in St. Paul’s Cathedral). Whispers consist primarily of high pitches that can be “directed and controlled” along a channel, and do not stray sideways as lower pitches do (83, 84). 34. ​H. G. Wells, The Outline of History (New Delhi: Prabhat Prakashan, 1951), showing an image from a relief on the ­temple of Dêr el-­Bahari in Egypt in 1250 bce and noting that the truss does not reappear again ­until Roman times. BIBLIOGRAPHY

AFP (Agence France-­Presse). “26 Dead as Tornado Hits China.” Express Tribune, May 6, 2010. Bragg, William. The World of Sound: Six Lectures Delivered before a Juvenile Audience at the Royal Institution, Christmas, 1919. London: Bell, 1921. Dougherty, Carol. The Raft of Odysseus: The Ethnographic Imagination of Homer’s Odyssey. New York: Oxford, 2001. “Eiffel Tower: Origins and Construction of the Eiffel Tower,” https://­www​ .­toureiffel​.­paris​/­en​/­the​-­monument​/­history. Fieldworker. Conversation with author at Conference “Old Pain, New Demons: Thinking Torture and Dignity ­Today,” International Committee of the Red Cross, Geneva, Switzerland, June 26, 2017. Fishman, Mark C. Lab: Building a Home for Scientists. Zürich: Lars Müller, 2017. Gallant, Joseph. “The Shape of the Eiffel Tower.” American Journal of Physics 70 (February 2002). Hardy, Thomas. Tess of the D’Urbervilles. New York: Penuin, 2003. Hindle, Brook. Emulation and Invention. NewYork: NewYork University Press, 1981. Homer. The Odyssey. Translated by A. T. Murray. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1919. Lin, Maya. Panel on Architecture of Novartis Institute for Biomedical Research with Mark Fishman, Maya Lin, Toshiko Mori, and Michael Van Valkenburgh, Novartis Lecture Hall, Cambridge, Mas­sa­chu­setts, Summer 2017.


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Livio, Mario. The Equation That C ­ ouldn’t Be Solved: How Mathematical Genius Discovered the Language of Symmetry. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005. Mackintosh, James. “The Iowa and Illinois Tornado of May 22, 1873.” Quarterly Journal of Science 43 (1874). Mairs, Jessica. “Moshe Safdi Completes Singapore Sky Habitat Featuring Aerial ‘Streets’ and Gardens.” Dezeen 9 (February 2016). Makkreel, Rudolf A. Imagination and Interpretation in Kant: The Hermeneutical Import of the Critique of Judgment. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990. Meyer, Robinson. “Are Stonehenge’s Boulders Actually Big Bells?” Atlantic, March 5, 2014. Pellizzi, Francesco. Conversation with author at Conference on Facets of Beauty, Institute for Advanced Study, University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, Indiana, January 22, 2010. Petre, Cipriana. Conversation with author at Conference on Pain and Beauty, Robinson College and Center for Research in Arts, Social Sciences, and Humanities, Cambridge University, Cambridge, May 21–22, 2010. Ressler, Stephen. “Understanding the World’s Greatest Structures: Science and Innovation from Antiquity to Modernity.” The ­Great Courses, 2011. Salgado, Sebastião. Migrations. New York: Aperture, 2000. Salgado, Sebastião. The ­Children. New York: Aperture, 2005. Stall, Nathan. “Private Rooms: Evidence-­Based Design in Hospitals.” Canadian Medical Association Journal 184, no. 2 (2012): 162–163. Stillinger, Jack. “ ‘Kubla Khan’ and Michelangelo’s Glorious Boast.” En­glish Language Notes 23 (September 1985). Tolstoy, Leo. War and Peace. Translated by Louise and Aylmer Maude. Minneapolis: First Ave­nue Editions, 2016. Ulrich, R. S. “View through a Win­dow May Influence Recovery from Surgery.” Science 224, no. 4647 (1984): 420–421. Venturi, Robert and Denise Scott Brown. Architecture as Signs and Systems: For a Mannerist Time. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2004. Wells, H. G. The Outline of History. New Delhi: Prabhat Prakashan, 1951. “Worst Storm in 115 Years Lashes Chongqing.” China Daily (reprinted from Shanghai Daily), July 18, 2007.


The concern of this article is the relation between philosophy and aesthetics. Though the latter term is broader than what one usually calls “art,” a discussion of art ­will suffice for our purposes ­here. One way to approach the topic would be to say that what counts as philosophy and as art is simply a m ­ atter of convention. As is so often the case, Richard Rorty gives us the clearest example of such conventionalism: “­There is no more point in discussing ‘philosophy’ in a sense broad enough to include Parmenides, Averroes, Kierkegaard, and Quine than in discussing ‘art’ in a sense broad enough to include Sophocles, Cimabue, Zola, and Nijinsky. The attempt to gain neutrality by rising to that level of abstraction produces only banal platitudes or polemical slogans.”1 Certainly we should all hope to avoid “banal platitudes or polemical slogans”; the grain of truth in Rorty’s position is that no statement about the nature of philosophy or art is likely to remain binding for all eternity. It does not follow that all general statements about anything should be studiously avoided. Only if we make our best effort to define philosophy, art, and their relation as candidly as pos­si­ble can ­others still unborn hope to improve on our efforts. We must posit and develop theories, not in order to be authoritarian bullies who force o ­ thers to see the t­hings the way we do, but in order to discover in what precise ways our theories eventually fall short of the mark. Rorty’s sweeping hostility to definitions merely prevents the fertile risk of failure that ­every good theory needs. THE FRACTURE IN ­THINGS

Let’s begin with a negative statement that I find highly fruitful, though it ­will not escape controversy: philosophy and art are alike in not being forms of knowledge. In some cases they may produce knowledge as a byproduct,


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but unlike mathe­matics and the natu­ral sciences, knowledge is not their principal aim. This is easiest to see in art, and I include architecture and design ­under this heading as well. The chief purpose of a painting, sculpture, or building is not to teach us a lesson about something. It is true that ­there are dogmatic paint­ers, sculptors, and architects who use their work to make heavy-­handed po­liti­cal points, but equally true that their work ­will not survive u ­ nless it has a certain something that cannot be paraphrased in po­liti­cal terms. The aesthetic merits of Picasso’s Guernica ­will bring it attention long ­after the Spanish Civil War is forgotten, and the same holds true for the enduring popularity of ­Uncle Tom’s Cabin as American slavery (if not racial discrimination) recedes into the historical distance. The leftist or authoritarian politics of any given architect w ­ ill tend to decrease in importance if their designs have compelling aesthetic merit; other­wise, they ­will only look like crabby propagandists as their works vanish into an angry, gloomy twilight. Another way of making the point is to say that artworks cannot be fully paraphrased, by which I mean that they cannot be replaced by descriptions that restate their features in literal prose terminology. The point was made clearly enough de­cades ago, by New Critics such as Cleanth Brooks.2 A poem simply cannot be converted into literal, discursive prose statements, any more than the surface of a globe can be compressed into a flat two-­dimensional map without distorting ­either the size or shape of ­every country in the world. It was not long ­after Brooks that the phi­los­o­pher Max Black made the same case about individual meta­phors.3 My best guess is that, other than aesthetic Jacobins overcommitted to the notion of art as yet another tool for assaulting capitalism and patriarchy, most ­people would accept my claim that art is not primarily about the production of knowledge. It ­will prob­ably be more difficult to persuade ­people that the same holds for philosophy. ­Isn’t philosophy a search for truth? H ­ asn’t modern philosophy committed itself to a rigorous discourse comparable to ­those of physics and geometry? Against ­these claims, I invoke Socrates as the ancestral hero of our discipline. His life story is well known. When a friend of Socrates reported that the Oracle at Delphi had called him the wisest man in Greece, he reacted with disbelief, and spent several years questioning experts on nearly ­every topic: justice, virtue, friendship, love. Having noticed that even t­ hese experts could not respond coherently to the most basic questions about their subjects of interest, Socrates concluded only semi-­ironically that the Oracle had been right: at least Socrates

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is aware of his ignorance, whereas the purported experts in Athens ­were not. From this awareness of his superiority through ignorance spring most of Socrates’s best-­known statements: the only t­ hing he knows is that he knows nothing; he has never been anyone’s teacher; if virtue ­were a kind of knowledge, then we o ­ ught to be able to find someone who can teach it, yet we cannot find such a person.4 Socrates is remembered too often as someone who demands a definition of e­ very word introduced in his presence, and too seldom as someone who never actually finds a satisfying definition of anything. This is not ­because the conversations do not last long enough, but ­because no definitions of philosophical ideas can ever be found. Friendship, virtue, and justice cannot be paraphrased any more than an artwork, building, poem, or meta­phor can. At first this might seem to leave us empty handed. German Idealism rejected Immanuel Kant’s thing-­in-­itself for precisely this reason: if we can think a ­thing beyond thought, then we are already thinking it, and therefore it is not beyond thought; ergo, it is not r­ eally a thing-­in-­itself. The philosophies of Fichte and Hegel spring from this supposed refutation of the in-­itself. Analogously, Sigmund Freud’s unconscious can supposedly never be accessed directly, but Jacques Lacan makes the same effort to correct Freud that Hegel did with Kant: a­ fter all, d­ oesn’t the entire theoretical edifice of Freud have to do with language, with slips of the tongue and with dreams? Thus the unconscious is not in a place “deeper” than consciousness, but consists of cracks and failures immanent in language itself. This general hostility to the deep and the hidden is nicely expressed by the ardent rationalist/materialist phi­los­o­pher Adrian Johnston: “[N]umerous post-­idealists in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries end up promoting a facile mysticism whose basic under­lying logic is difficult to distinguish from that of negative theology. The unchanging skeletal template is this: ­there is a given “x;” this “x” cannot be rationally and discursively captured at the level of any categories, concepts, predicates, properties, ­etc.”5 While many ­will find this a stirring passage, it makes one rather troubling assumption. According to Johnston, we are left with a forced choice between just two options: (1) the “rational and discursive capture” of real­ ity “at the level of categories, concepts, predicates, and properties”; or (2) a mere “negative theology” that gives us nothing but vague gesticulations and mystical hand waving. This is, of course, a false dichotomy. What it misses is the possibility of indirect discussions of real­ity in which we allude


Graham Harman

to real­ity without paraphrasing it. The allusion to ­things, which summon us with their allure without ever being quite pres­ent, is so obviously crucial in the realm of art that it even deserves to be called the aesthetic feature par excellence. It is found no less in philosophia as practiced by Socrates, which in Greek means the love of an inaccessible wisdom rather than the direct ­human possession of it. The exact flavor of a wine cannot be paraphrased in terms of the chemical equations that describe it. Napoleon’s success on the battlefield cannot automatically be replicated by anyone who thoroughly studies a “top ten” list of Napoleonic military tips. We are not left with a choice between knowledge and ignorance, but are plunged into what the early modern phi­los­o­pher Nicholas of Cusa (1401–1464), in the tradition of Socrates, calls “learned ignorance.”6 It is in­ter­est­ing to ask why paraphrase fails. Or perhaps it is better to ask first why it does not seem to fail in the case of the sciences. Although science is aware that its theories are never absolute or final and must always be modified in the face of new evidence, its goal—­unlike philosophy or the arts—is knowledge. Now, if someone asks us to explain what something is, to provide knowledge about it, t­ here are two and only two ways to answer their question: We can explain what the ­thing is made of, or explain what it does. Take oxygen, for instance. We can explain oxygen by calling it O2 and giving historical facts about how it was emitted long ago on Earth as a waste product of cyanobacteria—­which both amount to explanations of what it is made of, compositionally and then historically. Or, we can explain oxygen by saying what it does: that it must be inhaled by animals if they are to survive, that it is emitted by plants, that it is highly combustible—­all of which amount to explanations of what oxygen does. Both approaches are very useful, and ­human survival requires our gaining additional knowledge about the composition and action of e­ very object ­under the sun. And yet, both approaches omit the most fundamental question of all. If we assume that a t­ hing is simply what it is made of (as when we say that oxygen is simply O2), this is an undermining method that fails to account for the emergent qualities of the ­thing over and above its composition. And if we assume that a ­thing is simply what it does, this is by contrast an overmining method that fails to account for the surplus of the ­thing ­under and beneath all of the actions it is currently performing or may ever perform. But usually the two methods are employed si­mul­ta­neously, leading to a duomining of ­things that forces them to exist downward in their components and

A New Sense of Mimesis 53

upward in their effects, but never at home in their own selves.7 A fine example of duomining can be found in Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington’s famous meta­phor of the “two ­tables”: the scientific ­table made up of tiny physical particles, and the midsized practical ­table that has effects on the other objects in the room where it sits.8 While Eddington is satisfied by trying to strike some sort of balance between his two ­tables, he fails to notice the existence of a third ­table between ­these two, the one that makes the other two pos­si­ble.9 This third t­ able, however, is what artists and designers never forget, since it is exactly what they aim to produce. Perhaps the most impor­tant ­thing we have learned from the failure of paraphrase is that an object is not equal to the sum total of its qualities. As a reminder, by “paraphrase” we mean the replacement of an object by some literal description or explanation that is taken to be a perfect substitute for the ­thing itself. Whether a t­ hing is explained away in terms of its internal components or its external vis­i­ble effects, we have seen that neither of ­these options gives us the object itself. This means that t­ here is a rift between an object and its own qualities, a fracture in ­things. This was seen quite early by Plato, in a passage of the Meno that is usually e­ ither ignored or mis­ understood. The hopeless blunderer Meno asks Socrates if virtue can be taught. His response is more in­ter­est­ing than it seems: “If I do not know what something is, how could I know what qualities it possesses? Or do you think that someone who does not know at all who Meno is could know ­whether he is good-­looking or rich or well-­born, or the opposite of ­these?”10 Socrates seems to be saying that we must know what something is before we know the qualities it possesses. This may strike us as impossible, since knowledge apparently consists in nothing more than learning the qualities of a ­thing. But in fact, Socrates has a power­ful intuition ­here: ­there is something like a “knowledge” of what a ­thing is that precedes our knowledge of its exact qualities. Naturally, the knowledge of what a t­ hing is cannot be a knowledge in the strict sense, which requires a discursive prose paraphrase of e­ ither its composition or its effects. David Hume famously cast the existence of objects into doubt by claiming that they ­were nothing more than “bundles of qualities,” a claim that dominated Western philosophy ­until Edmund Husserl reversed it with the phenomenological model in which the ­whole of a ­thing precedes its parts.11 But already in Plato’s Meno, written sometime in the 300s BCE, we find Socrates driving a wedge between virtue and its own qualities. In fact, the


Graham Harman

tension or polarization between an object and its own qualities is the central princi­ple of object-­oriented ontology (OOO), the standpoint from which the pres­ent article is written. ­There are initially four such tensions, which is not accidental, since that is the number of pos­si­ble pairings that results from two kinds of objects (O) and two kinds of qualities (Q). Each comes in exactly two va­r i­e­ties, which in OOO are called “real” (R) and “sensual” (S). This gives us four basic ele­ ments to be paired up: RO, RQ, SO, and SQ. And since ­there are no objects without qualities, or (as phenomenology demonstrates) qualities without objects, ­these ele­ments can combine in four pos­si­ble ways: RO-­ RQ, RO-­SQ, SO-­RQ, SO-­SQ. (Keep an eye on the RO-­SQ tension, since it ­will prove to be the place where aesthetics occurs.) The reason we call them “tensions” is b­ ecause objects both have and do not have their qualities, which makes for an uneasy relation between them. But what is the difference between real and sensual? By “real” we refer to ­those objects or qualities that have genuine real­ity in their own right, irreplaceable by paraphrase in terms of something e­ lse. The “real” is what we w ­ ere speaking of when disqualifying undermining, overmining, and duomining as adequate ways of getting at real­ity itself. The ultimate source of OOO’s notion of the real is the philosophy of Heidegger, who always speaks of the being of anything as that which withdraws into veiledness or concealment apart from any form of accessible “presence-­at-­hand.”12 By contrast, “sensual” refers to ­those objects or qualities that do not exist in their own right, but only as correlates of the experience of some other entity. One example of this—­but only one—­are the objects and qualities encountered by ­humans and animals during their lifetimes. The ultimate source of this notion is Husserl’s phenomenology. For on the one hand Husserl has nothing positive to say about what OOO l­ater called real objects: things-­in-­themselves that can never, in princi­ple, be made the object of any conscious act. For example, no ­matter how much I learn about the composition and pos­si­ ble uses of a hammer, neither of t­ hese is enough to exhaust its entire real­ ity. But on the other hand, Husserl was perhaps unique in realizing that, within the sphere of conscious acts, ­there is still a distinction between objects and qualities. The apple shows constantly shifting ­faces, yet seems to us to remain the same apple: this is what OOO calls the “sensual apple,” as opposed to the real one that remains something dif­fer­ent from any pos­ si­ble relation it has to consciousness or anything ­else. In any case,

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“ontography” is the OOO term for the branch of philosophy that considers the implications of all the RO-­RQ, RO-­SQ, SO-­RQ, SO-­SQ tensions or pairings. For our pres­ent purposes, however, we need only focus on one: the RO-­SQ tension, the pivot on which all aesthetic experience turns. The objects of everyday experience are sensual objects, such as apples bearing a shifting array of qualities from one moment to the next. In most cases, ­there is no par­tic­u­lar mystery to the apples. But in certain experiences marked by especial charm or allure, or in aesthetic pre­sen­ta­tion of the apples, something dif­fer­ent happens. The apples are no longer familiar sensual objects, but become inscrutable units lying at a vast depth beneath the qualities they nonetheless seem to unify. The apples are now real objects, and insofar as they are real and not just sensual, they are things-­in-­themselves, impenetrable to any attempt to relate with them. ­There turn out to be a number of dif­fer­ent ways in which we can interfere with the usual relation between sensual objects and sensual qualities (SO-­SQ) so as to convert it into the allure of a real object in tension with sensual qualities (RO-­SQ). The arts have instinctively uncovered many of ­these ways, and perhaps even more await discovery. But it often proves to be the case that meta­phor is a good example of how the pro­cess works more generally.13 Let’s consider one of the most sonorous lines of poetry from Dante’s Inferno (V 142): E caddi come corpo morto cade. Mandelbaum translates this as follows: “And then I fell, as a dead body falls.”14 This is Dante collapsing in shock, moved by pity for the sad fate in hell of the celebrated lovers Paolo and Francesca. OOO claims that ­there are three key features of this meta­phor, as of any other: (1) unparaphraseability; (2) semi-­ resemblance, neither too similar nor too dissimilar; and (3) asymmetry of the two compared terms. The first was already mentioned above, and is already handled directly by Max Black among ­others: the meta­phor cannot be replaced by some supposed literal equivalent. That is to say, we cannot parse “and then I fell, as a dead body falls” as saying “basically, Dante means that he dropped straight to the ground like a dead weight.” This redescription has ­little to no aesthetic value and fails to capture all of the subtle undertones that a reader might find in the meta­phor. The second holds equally for all meta­phors other than highly contrived special cases: semiresemblance. Consider the following statement: “And then the second dead body fell, just like the first dead body had fallen.” While perfectly


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informative, the similarity ­here is so g­ reat that we have nothing surprising—­ nothing more than a literal statement. The same holds for the following variant of Dante’s line: “And then I fell, the way cinnamon from Ceylon tastes in tapioca.” While we cannot exclude the possibility that some genius of the poetic avant-­garde might be able to pull off such a line in credible fashion, it is safe to say that it ­will almost always fail to be recognized as a meta­phor. The two terms being compared have so ­little in common that they cannot be effectively merged. Third and fi­nally, ­there is an asymmetry in the meta­phor. Dante can and does say, “And then I fell, as a dead body falls.” He might also conceivably have said, “And then the dead body fell, just as I fell from shock at the doomed lovers.” But notice that, in the latter case, we have a dif­fer­ent meta­phor. Whereas the first is about Dante, the second is about a dead body. What do we learn from t­hese three key features of meta­phor? From unparaphraseability, we learn that the meta­phor produces a real object. To say that the meta­phor cannot be paraphrased is another way of saying that it cannot be literalized, cannot be replaced by clear, discursive prose propositions that give us its meaning. From semiresemblance we learn that t­ here must be some overlap of qualities between the two t­ hings being compared in order for meta­phor to be pos­si­ble. But we also learn that shared qualities cannot be the central point at issue, given that objects with too many shared qualities are also not suitable for meta­phorical combination. We therefore conclude that the shared qualities of the two objects are merely a pretext to bring them together for some other purpose. And from the asymmetry of meta­phor, we learn that one of the two terms being compared is in the “object” position and the other in the “qualities” position. We also said that two terms can be reversed, which simply yields a dif­fer­ent meta­ phor. From this it is clear that any term is capable of e­ ither serving in e­ ither an “object” role or a “qualities” role in meta­phor: further evidence that any object is actually a tense O/Q combination. Yet it turns out that meta­phor (and indeed, all aesthetic experience) has a fourth essential quality, one we can call theatricality. Theatricality occurs whenever I as the beholder of art am called upon to step in and replace the aesthetic object due to its withdrawal from direct visibility. But let’s leave this topic to the end of this article, where we can discuss it in connection with a new sense of mimesis to be proposed ­there.

A New Sense of Mimesis 57 MIMESIS AND FORMALISM

When writing about mimesis, t­ here are dozens of sources to choose from, ranging from time-­tested classic figures to the most impeccably chic con­ temporary ones. For the purposes of this article, we can limit ourselves to mentioning the basic attitude of the two greatest ­giants of ancient philosophy and one significant present-­day thinker who steps into their midst without r­ eally advancing the discussion beyond its ancient par­ameters. We begin with Plato, one of the ancient ­giants, whose attitude ­toward imitation is famously negative on all counts. In Book X of the Republic, for instance, Socrates (at 597b) distinguishes between three senses of a couch: the one that exists in nature (the perfect form of the couch), the one produced by a carpenter, and the one painted by an artist as a copy of the carpenter’s couch. In this way, whereas the carpenter is just one remove from the truth, the artist is a full two steps away from the perfect forms. This is typical of Plato’s attitude t­oward imitation, perhaps expressed most comically in a piece of sarcasm from Socrates just a few paragraphs earlier (at 596d): “Take a mirror and carry it around everywhere; quickly you ­will make the sun and the t­ hings in the heaven; quickly, the earth; and quickly, yourself and the other animals and implements and plants and every­thing ­else that was just now mentioned.”15 Now, it would be pos­si­ble to retain something like Plato’s metaphysics while simply reversing his attitude ­toward art into a positive one. This is roughly the procedure employed in our time by Alain Badiou, who would agree that something like the couchness of the couch is at stake, while merely adding that the painter of the couch gets us closer to the true couch than the carpenter does. This standpoint leads Badiou to claim that if we compare a Picasso painting of a ­horse with a prehistoric cave painting of a h ­ orse, we ­will find that the same ­horse is at stake in both cases. Badiou does bend over backward to admit that ­these two ­horses occupy utterly dif­fer­ent worlds (and “worlds” for him means nothing more than dif­fer­ent contexts of appearance).16 Nonetheless, the contemplation t­oward which t­hese paintings lead us is deeply Platonic in character. Badiou concludes the section on paint­ers and h ­ orses as follows: “A famous cynic thought he was laughing ­behind Plato’s back by saying: ‘I do see some h ­ orses, but no Horse­ness.’ In the im­mense progression of pictorial creations, from the hunter with his torch to the modern


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millionaire [Picasso], it is indeed Horse­ness, and nothing e­ lse, which we see.”17 Thus Badiou preserves the Platonic idea of a single ­horse­ness in which many individuals somehow participate, and merely revises the status of the painter from a desecrator and sloppy copier of the horse-­form to an inspired resurrector of that form. We can conclude from this that Badiou views mimesis more positively than Plato, whom he other­wise salutes. As for the “famous cynic” mocked by Badiou, the one who denies the existence of Horse­ness, he sounds an awful lot like Plato’s greatest student, Aristotle. For Aristotle, mimesis is not a way of abjectly wallowing in derivative images, but is the source of both intelligence and plea­sure. As for the first point: “The instinct of imitation is implanted in man from childhood, one difference between him and other animals being that he is the most imitative of living creatures; and through imitation he learns his earliest lessons.”18 And as for the point about mimesis as the source of plea­sure: “Objects which in themselves we view with pain, we delight to contemplate when reproduced with minute fidelity: such as the forms of the most ignoble animals and of dead bodies.”19 ­Here the object of imitation is not the perfect form of an “ignoble animal or dead body,” since of course such forms do not exist in Aristotle’s philosophy as they do in Plato’s. Instead, it would be the individual animal or body that is the object of mimesis on the part of the artist. In that case, t­ here would be no question of a prehistoric painter and Picasso both pointing ­toward a shared h ­ orse­ness; instead, t­here would be a gap within the depicted individual h ­ orse between its concrete existence and its imitable or learnable properties. OOO is generally closer to Aristotle than to Plato on most issues, and this one is no exception: for us, art unfolds on the level of the individual h ­ orse, and has nothing to do with Platonic or Badiouian ­horse­ness. But the OOO variation on this theme is to say that we are not in an aesthetic situation ­until the ­horse becomes a nonsensual one: a concrete real ­horse that cannot be imitated in the sense of producing a copy of it. This leads us to the most impor­tant difference between OOO and other theories of mimesis. It should be remembered that this word has not one but two primary senses. In the first sense, mimesis means producing an imitation of something, in the manner of a painter, sculptor, or filmmaker. But in a second sense, mimesis refers to the act of becoming an imitation of something, as is the case with actors, mimes, and dancers. This distinction

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turns out to make all the difference, and touches upon what was earlier termed the theatricality of meta­phor and of the arts more generally. Stated differently, the question is not (a) ­whether we make images of perfect forms or concrete t­ hings or (b) w ­ hether t­ hose images are better or worse than the ­things they represent. Instead, the question of mimesis has more to do with our own role, as performers, in sustaining the work of art. Perhaps the tools of  “method acting,” known as a twentieth-­century theatrical innovation stemming from the work of the ­great Rus­sian, Konstantin Stanislavksi, have always lain at the root of the arts more broadly.20 One piece of evidence for this can be found in what was hinted at earlier concerning the theatricality of meta­phor. The example given was from Dante: “And then I fell, as a dead body falls.” Due to the asymmetrical character of meta­phor, we can say that Dante occupies the “object” position ­here, while the dead body can be found in the “qualities” position. Stated differently, the meta­phor works by Dante, the object, receiving the qualities of the dead body as it falls. Yet what we called the only semiresemblance of Dante and the dead body means that Dante cannot be literally identified with the qualities of the falling body. The Dante of the meta­phor is unparaphraseable, meaning that he withdraws into a nonliteralizable place: a real that cannot be undermined or overmined by any sort of explanation. Yet we also saw earlier that t­ here can be no object without qualities and no qualities without an object. This is a prob­lem for the meta­phor, ­because the falling-­dead-­body-­qualities cannot attach themselves to a Dante who withdraws to an inaccessible distance. And since the meta­phor produces a real object and not just a sensual one—­for the latter results only in literal language—­the falling-­dead-­body-­qualities also cannot attach themselves to Dante as a sensual object. ­There is only one remaining alternative. The one real object capable of sustaining the falling-­dead-­body-­qualities, the only real object anywhere near the scene and able to report for duty, is I myself as the beholder of the artwork—as the reader of the poem. As an aesthetic beholder, I am a method actor playing Dante playing a falling dead body. On this basis, we can see that meta­phor is inherently theatrical. This seems to put us into direct confrontation with the antitheatrical aesthetics of the impor­tant art theorist Michael Fried.21 The argument of his classic 1967 article “Art and Objecthood” runs roughly as follows. The works of the so-­called minimalists are simply literal objects: what you see is what you get, ­whether it be an iron sphere or an oblong made of


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copper. Such literalism merely surrounds us with everyday objects, and is inherently incompatible with aesthetics. In view of the inherent emptiness of ­these surfaces of literal objecthood, the point of minimalist works must be to provoke a theatrical response from us, and theater means the death of art. Though it is clear from the article that Fried has a strong personal distaste for theatricality, he never makes a persuasive argument for why we should agree with him that the death of art must result from it. I suspect that Fried thinks that theatricality fails for the same reason that literalism must. Fried, like his one-­time mentor Clement Greenberg, seems much indebted to that aspect of Immanuel Kant’s aesthetics that can be called “formalist” (though as far as I know, Kant only openly used the term formalism in connection with his ethics).22 And whichever part of Kant’s philosophy we are discussing, his formalism can be seen in the autonomy of the subject ­matter that is key to any par­tic­u­lar domain of philosophy. For example, and quite famously, Kant holds that the princi­ ples of ethics must be in­de­pen­dent of any punishment or reward, or of any consequences at all. It is solely in the pure duty of obeying the categorical imperative (“act in such a way that your action could become a universal law”) that we find the worth of an ethical act. So too in connection with aesthetics: artistic taste must be autonomous from anything individually agreeable or disagreeable for the critic or for the beholder. Fried’s ban on theatricality seems designed to preserve the artwork in its autonomous purity from irrelevant ­human arousal, so that the indifference of objective taste may do its work. Yet to think along t­ hese lines is to confuse two dif­fer­ent senses of ­human contamination. In one sense, both aesthetic formalism and philosophical realism require that the object remain autonomous from the ­human observer. Kant was right that the artwork should not be reduced to a stimulant for my pride or entertainment as a beholder, just as the medical researcher is right that Ebola exists in its own right quite apart from any “social construction” of the disease. Likewise, Fried is right that the artwork reduced to a literal surface is not quite an artwork (­whether or not we agree with his verdict on minimalism, which is a separate question). Yet it does not follow that ­there is no ­human ingredient in art. A canvas by Picasso (depicting ­horses, perhaps?) is not much of an artwork if all ­humans, apes, and dolphins are exterminated by nuclear war, just as w ­ ater is not very

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water-­like if stripped of its hydrogen. Art is a compound object composed of both ­human and nonhuman ingredients, yet this aesthetic role for ­humans does not entail that art is merely a literal surface. Quite the contrary: it is only h ­ uman involvement with the artwork (and perhaps that of higher animals) that creates a joint theatrical experience no outside observer can exhaust. NOTES

1. ​Richard Rorty, Truth and Pro­gress: Philosophical Papers: Volume 3 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 9. 2. ​Cleanth Brooks, The Well Wrought Urn (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1947). For an object-­oriented reading of Brooks, see Graham Harman, “The Well-­ Wrought Broken Hammer: Object-­Oriented Literary Criticism,” New Literary History 43, no. 2 (Spring 2012): 183–203. 3. ​Max Black, “Meta­phor,” in Models and Meta­phors (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1962). For an object-­oriented reading of Black, see Graham Harman, Guerrilla Metaphysics: Phenomenology and the Carpentry of ­Things (Chicago: Open Court, 2005). 4. ​The first two claims can be found in the Apology, and the third comes from the Meno. Both dialogues can be found in Plato, Five Dialogues, trans. G. M. A. Grube (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2002). 5. ​Adrian Johnston, “Points of Forced Freedom: Eleven (More) ­Theses on Materialism,” Speculations 4 (2013): 91–98. 6. ​Nicholas of Cusa, “Of Learned Ignorance,” in Selected Spiritual Writings, trans. H. L. Bond (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist, 1997), 85–206. 7. ​Graham Harman, “Undermining, Overmining, and Duomining: A Critique,” in ADD Metaphysics, ed. Jenna Sutela (Aalto, Finland: Aalto University Design Research Laboratory, 2013), 40–51. 8. ​A. S. Eddington, The Nature of the Physical World (NewYork: MacMillan, 1929), ix. 9. ​Graham Harman, “The Third ­Table,” in The Book of Books, ed. Carolyn Christov Bakargiev (Ostfildern, Germany: Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2012), 540–542. 10. ​Plato, “Meno,” in Five Dialogues, 71b. 11. ​David Hume, A Treatise of ­Human Nature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000); Edmund Husserl, Logical Investigations, trans. J. N. Findlay (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1970). 12. ​Graham Harman, Heidegger Explained: From Phenomenon to ­Thing (Chicago: Open Court, 2007).


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13. ​Along with Max Black’s aforementioned essay “Meta­phor,” I have profited greatly from José Ortega y Gasset, “An Essay in Esthetics by Way of a Preface,” in Phenomenology and Art, trans. P. Silver (New York: Norton, 1975). 14. ​Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, trans. A. Mandelbaum (New York: Random House, 1995). For my commentary on Dante, see Graham Harman, Dante’s Broken Hammer: The Ethics, Aesthetics, and Metaphysics of Love (London: Repeater, 2016). 15. ​Plato, The Republic of Plato, trans. A. Bloom (NewYork: Basic Books, 1968), 279. 16. ​Alain Badiou, Logics of Worlds: Being and Event II, trans. A. Toscano (London: Continuum, 2009), 16–20. 17. ​Badiou, Logics of Worlds, 20. 18. ​Aristotle, The Poetics of Aristotle, trans. S. H. Butcher (London: MacMillan, 1902), 15 [1148b5-8]. 19. ​Aristotle, The Poetics of Aristotle, 15 [1148b10-12]. 20. ​Konstantin Stanislavski, An Actor’s Work, trans. J. Benedetti (New York: Routledge, 2008). 21. ​Michael Fried, “Art and Objecthood,” in Art and Objecthood: Essays and Reviews (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998). 22. ​Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment, trans. W. Pluhar (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1987); Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, trans. M. Gregor and J. Timmerman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997). BIBLIOGRAPHY

Aristotle. The Poetics of Aristotle. Translated by S. H. Butcher. London: MacMillan, 1902. Badiou, Alain. Logics of Worlds: Being and Event II. Translated by Alberto Toscano. London: Continuum, 2009. Black, Max. “Meta­phor.” In Models and Meta­phors. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1962. Brooks, Cleanth. The Well Wrought Urn. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1947. Dante Alighieri. The Divine Comedy. Translated by Allen Mandelbaum. New York: Random House, 1995. Eddington, Arthur Stanley. The Nature of the Physical World. New York: MacMillan, 1929. Fried, Michael. “Art and Objecthood.” In Art and Objecthood: Essays and Reviews, 148–172. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.

A New Sense of Mimesis 63 Harman, Graham. Dante’s Broken Hammer: The Ethics, Aesthetics, and Metaphysics of Love. London: Repeater, 2016. Harman, Graham. Guerrilla Metaphysics: Phenomenology and the Carpentry of ­Things. Chicago: Open Court, 2005. Harman, Graham. Heidegger Explained: From Phenomenon to ­Thing. Chicago: Open Court, 2007. Harman, Graham. “The Third ­Table.” In The Book of Books, edited by Carolyn Christov Bakargiev, 540–542. Ostfildern, Germany: Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2012. Harman, Graham. “The Well-­Wrought Broken Hammer: Object-­Oriented Literary Criticism.” New Literary History 43, no. 2 (Spring 2012): 183–203. Harman, Graham. “Undermining, Overmining, and Duomining: A Critique.” In ADD Metaphysics, edited by Jenna Sutela, 40–51. Aalto, Finland: Aalto University Design Research Laboratory, 2013. Hume, David. A Treatise of ­Human Nature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. Husserl, Edmund. Logical Investigations. Translated by J. N. Findlay. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1970. Johnston, Adrian. “Points of Forced Freedom: Eleven (More) ­Theses on Materialism.” Speculations 4 (2013): 91–98. Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Judgment. Translated by Werner Pluhar. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1987. Kant, Immanuel. Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. Translated by Mary Gregor and Jens Timmerman. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997. Nicholas of Cusa. “Of Learned Ignorance.” In Selected Spiritual Writings, translated by H. L. Bond, 85–206. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1997. Ortega y Gasset, José. “An Essay in Esthetics by Way of a Preface.” In Phenomenology and Art, translated by Philip Silver. New York: Norton, 1975. Plato. Five Dialogues. Translated by G. M. A. Grube. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2002. Plato. The Republic of Plato. Translated by Allan Bloom. New York: Basic Books, 1968. Rorty, Richard. Truth and Pro­gress: Philosophical Papers: Volume 3. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998. Stanislavski, Konstantin. An Actor’s Work. Translated by Jean Benedetti. New York: Routledge, 2008.

5  USE THE FORCE Timothy Morton

Perhaps it comes as a surprise how many phi­los­o­phers are afraid of movement. It may not seem so on the surface, but it is genuinely difficult to explain why ­things keep on moving, even though this is a fact that physics calls inertia. So maybe the best ­thing is to get rid of movement, to make it be a superficial aspect of our world, or not to exist at all. Perhaps we can call this fear of movement kinephobia, and perhaps like all phobias, kinephobia is a blocked fear of enjoyment—­enjoyment of slipping, sliding, rubbing, throbbing, licking, floating, and, horror of horrors, vibrating. What has this got to do with aesthetics and politics? Every­thing. This chapter is g­ oing to outline the causal power of the aesthetic dimension. This aspect of real­ity is too often taken to be in­effec­tive, in other words, not to have anything to do with action at all. I explain why this assumption is based on a deliberate obscuring of the origins of aesthetic thought in modernity, origins that supply the reasons why theories of the aesthetic function, but which must be obscured in order to contain their explosive implications. It ­isn’t that the aesthetic is apo­liti­cal and must be contorted to speak politics at all. Nor is it the case that the aesthetic is reducible to some nonaesthetic po­liti­cal realm that explains it away. I argue that the aesthetic as such is always a po­liti­cal domain, ­because it is precisely and counterintuitively the domain in which causality functions. Some phi­los­o­phers are more sanguine about movement. Hegel is accommodating of movement, well at least micro-­Hegel is. This chapter distinguishes between micro-­Hegel, the moment-­by-­moment quality of his thought, and macro-­Hegel, the general tendency. Micro-­Hegel infamously developed a model for how ­things happen: ­things flop over themselves like the toy called the slinky, a helix of metal that one can make “walk” downstairs. The trou­ble is, the flopping is only r­eally happening in a


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region that Hegel calls the Idea and no prizes as to whose idea it is—­white western patriarchy. And the other prob­lem, the so-­called macro-­Hegel, is that the slinky can move up the stairs, improbably. And at the top of the stairs, like the killer in Psycho, is waiting, no surprises, white western patriarchy in the guise of the Prus­sian State. Micro-­Hegel developed a wonderful mechanism for movement; the key is that t­hings are automatically in motion. Actually mechanism is the wrong word, ­because that implies ­things being pushed, as in Newtonian physics. The trou­ble is, and this is also a prob­lem even for micro-­Hegel, is that this movement is teleological: it’s ­going somewhere. The kind of movement discussed in this chapter is not only totally autonomous, but it’s also not g­ oing anywhere in par­tic­u­lar. It’s waving, undulating, vibrating. The vibrational quality of movement is the heart of the phobic object of kinephobia. According to the view outlined ­here, this undulation is why ­things can happen at all. Scientists are now beginning to observe this undulation in tiny objects, objects that are nevertheless billions of times larger than traditional quantum objects such as photons and electrons. A tiny sliver of metal thirty microns long is placed close to absolute zero in a vacuum—­that is what physics means by “isolated, all by itself, not relating to anything ­else.”1 When it’s like that, you can see it shimmying. Actually it’s even more in­ter­est­ing than that. You can see it shimmying and not shimmying at the same time. The zero degree of movement is not a tiny motion “in” space from point delta A to point delta B. Minimal movement is stillness, a beautiful word. Stillness ­isn’t static. Stillness is alive, quivering. Or a tiny mirror in a lab at Cal Tech, in a vacuum close to absolute zero—­again, isolated. It starts to show ­human scientists what it’s all about. It emits a bit of infrared light, a signal that it is being pushed. But it ­isn’t being pushed, ­because it’s all on its own. It’s shimmering, without mechanical input.2 This shimmering, like the light sparkling on a lake in the twilight: that’s the basis of movement. It’s like how listening is the basis of ­music, how listening is the basis of language. It’s a space of attunement, of catching waves and riding them, where the question of who is influencing whom becomes very ambiguous. ­Free ­will is overrated. By the time one intends to do something, one is already ­doing it. We only d­ on’t accept this idea that shimmering is the basis of the movement we acknowledge (­because it’s about seeming to go from A to B). This is b­ ecause w ­ e’re still reproducing, in all kinds of social,

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psychic, and philosophical venues, an old, patriarchal, and untenable notion of active versus passive. It comes down to a question of w ­ hether one is better able to tolerate unsustainable paradoxes or to tolerate ambiguity? I choose ambiguity. I reject the idea that t­here’s a ­little invisible chap in me, a command control elf, who c­ an’t actually touch any of the controls ­because he’s made of spiritual stuff. Playing ­music or driving a car should clue you in to something much easier to understand, but also more magical. You listen to your fellow musicians. You tune in to your instrument as you play it. You become the medium through which the metal and snaky curvature of the saxophone begins to express itself. ­Human beings are not Stormtroopers pacing around a universe of inert objects, manipulating them into life. Nor are h ­ uman beings Pac-­Men who go around munching every­thing into existence, or as they like to say in philosophy world, negating. ­Human beings are trembly chameleons who love to be seduced by vibrating colors, sounds, textures. Art appreciation of any kind is a wonderfully available, even dirty, quick, and cheap, way of seeing something very deep about real­ity, namely that we are caught in intersecting patterns of undulation, that this passion i­sn’t the same as static silence. Art is a part of the universe that modern h ­ umans, obsessed with colonizing Mars and living forever, allow ­things to be still and quiet, not static and ­silent. And this is ­because art can be still and quiet, vibrating. The aesthetic dimension is the causal dimension, that’s why. And the under­lying princi­ple of this undulation is weirdly magical. ­Because ­things can only affect one another indirectly—­because t­hings never coincide with other t­ hings totally, they never even coincide with themselves like that: they are not reducible to their parts, and their parts are not reducible to the ­wholes that they are. Break a piece of chalk in half to find out what the piece of chalk is, and you now have two prob­lems, not just one. Breaking ­things down to smaller ­things d­ oesn’t explain them totally. Nor does “breaking them upward,” a syndrome common a­ fter Kant, a syndrome that object-­oriented ontology (OOO) names overmining. One can explain a ­thing as the effect of a discourse or as the positing of a transcendental subject (or history, or h ­ uman economic relations, and so on). If a ­thing is entirely the product of a relation to it, nothing can happen, ­because ­there’s nothing left over, no ontological wiggle room. A ­thing is an anarchist commune whose members are fully autonomous. So ­because ­things can only affect one another indirectly, causality ­can’t be


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about mechanically clicking against, like the balls in an executive toy, but rather aesthetically seducing, pushing and pulling, spooky, nonlocal, like telepathy, which means passion at a distance. ­Things ­can’t directly touch, but boots click against stones, guitar picks stroke amplified strings, gravity waves from distant colliding black holes make us smaller and younger, then taller and older, for a tiny fraction of a second. The world is, as the esoteric Buddhist tantras like to say, an illusionlike magical display—­and the under­lying princi­ple, which I w ­ ill try to explain, is the reason why this is the case. Causality i­sn’t the regular churning of complex cogwheels interrupted by miracles now and then. Causality just is a miraculous, magical display interrupted by brutalist h ­ uman power moves to try to make it seem all gray and mechanical. ­There is a deep reason for why t­ hings move all by themselves, and why this movement is best described as vibration. It’s an ontological reason, which means it has to do with the structure of how t­ hings are. Ontology thinks about how ­things exist, if they exist. I’m not the police so I ­can’t tell you what exists. I have to use examples of course, but they might not ­really exist. Ontology limits itself to exploring how ­things exist. T ­ here might be one ­thing in the w ­ hole universe—­that tends to be the Spinozan idea. Or ­there might be two. Or five hundred trillion. It has to do with the difference between two ­things that are nevertheless deeply entwined: appearing and being. ­There are all kinds of prejudices about appearing and being, via which we usually conjure up a picture of something quite static when we hear ­these words. Appearing is like a painting, and paintings, we tell ourselves, are static. (This obviously i­sn’t true, not about the painting or about looking at a painting, but we keep telling ourselves that—­this is in itself in­ter­est­ing. Perhaps w ­ e’ve all inherited philosophical kinephobia.) Being is like just sitting ­there, like a wise old frog. Maybe being is like a sculpture—it just rests on a plinth somewhere. And the most impor­tant t­ hing for us is that according to this view, paintings ­don’t do ­things like cogwheels do. I think this is why the kind of ontologist I am—an object-­oriented ontologist—­comes in for criticism. It is not b­ ecause of what OOO says, but ­because when ­people hear the word object they see what they already think they know. And what they think they know is static and solid. One tends not to think of a liquid when you hear that word. But a liquid behaves much more like what we OOO ­people call an object—­which could be

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any entity at all. When we say object, OOO just means anything at all: ­human, pop band, star cluster, star in a star cluster, pencil, frog, black hole, clothing on a washing line. Then one also beholds in the word object, as in a mirror, one’s worst white western patriarchal fears about what could happen to poor ­little you: one could become objectified. One could become totally passive. Strangely the fear of movement contains within it a fear of passivity—­a fear of being moved for example. Many phi­los­o­phers are wary of art ­because it moves them like that, for no good reason, without their ­will. But ­free ­will is an overrated and oft reproduced Neoplatonic Christian concept, and if we ­really want to surmount that, thinking ­will have to accept something like passivity quite a lot more into our theories of action. Con­temporary neuroscience shows that when you intend to do something, you have already done it. This is disturbing from that Neoplatonic Christian point of view, a view that obviously affects all kinds of thought that claim they a­ ren’t anything to do with Neoplatonism, such as Marxism. But from another, it’s miraculous, part of the miracle I w ­ ill attempt to describe. Stuff can happen, ­whether or not you intend it to happen. The fact that stuff can happen—­and t­ here’s plenty of wiggle room for new stuff to happen—is why po­liti­cal change can occur. Bertrand Russell denies physical action at a distance, arguing that causation can only be about contiguous ­things. If ­there is any action at a distance, he argues, then ­there must be some intervening entities that transmit the causality. In a wonderful passage Russell argues thus: “[W]hen ­there is a causal connection between two events that are not contiguous, ­there must be intermediate links in the causal chain such that each is contiguous to the next, or (alternatively) such that ­there is a pro­cess which is continuous.”3 Yet is this not precisely an elegant definition of the aesthetic dimension? Action at a distance (again, as Einstein derisory phrase for quantum-­ theoretical action) happens all the time, and not just to subatomic particles, if causation is aesthetic. This is not esoteric at all. We think this way on a daily basis. What is called consciousness is action at a distance, and we talk about it this way in regular speech. Consider the slippery notion of artistic “influence”: we never assume one writer physically approaches another one and hits them on the head in order to pass on their skills. As an experiment, think right now about the black hole at the center of the Milky


Timothy Morton

Way galaxy—­you are coming ­under the aesthetic influence of something extremely distant in extensional (A to B) space. We could go so far as to say that consciousness of anything is action at a distance. Empirical phenomena such as mirror neurons and entanglement bear this out. Brains are able to emulate the emotional states of ­others without physically touching them. Two particles that have been quantum entangled act as if they are instantaneously “aware” of one other. Thus to be located “in” space or “in” time is already to have been caught in a web of relations. It is not that objects primordially “occupy” some existing region of space time, but that they caught in the fields of and other­wise “spaced” and “timed” by other entities. Minimally, what physics calls action at a distance is just the existence-­for-­the-­other of the sensual qualities of any entity at all. What is called movement is simply a function of the difference between what a ­thing is and how it appears. How a t­ hing appears—­this is the past. My face is a map of every­thing that happened to my face. A flower is a plot of a genomic algorithm executing in cellulose (and so on). A ­thing is an image of a cookie that crumbled in just this very specific way. Time is nowhere ­else than in the object, as a property of that object, which implies that ­there is a bewildering variety of temporalities, as bewildering as the variety of beings. Linear time and space turns out to have been a fetishized, universalized anthropocentrically scaled construct, good for navigating one’s way to the fabled Spice Islands or for taking part in the space race. What a ­thing is—­this is the ­future. ­There is a not-­yet-­ness built into the ontological structure of a t­ hing.4 Readers of poems are quite good at noticing this futural quality. Who knows what this poem w ­ ill mean tomorrow, who knows how this sentence is ­going to end? Something about the poem or the sentence recedes from view, and this receding can happen b­ ecause of a more fundamental, radically ontological receding that OOO calls withdrawal. The sliding of the two over one another sustains a quivering, vibrating momentum, an energy, a flickering that we instantly reify by giving it a certain name: pres­ent. But pres­ent is exactly what this sliding cannot be at all. It would be better to call it nowness. Time and space are nothing other than the way a t­ hing slips and slides around itself, its appearance curling around its essence like a snake swallowing its own tail, and the way ­these snakes get caught up in dances with

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one another, the beats of which we ­mistake for time and space, where in fact they are the mea­sure­ment of time and space. (It’s often worse than that; we think ­we’re the only snakes in town and that we get to slither around every­thing ­else with clearly marked numbers on our scales so we can figure out exactly where every­thing ­else is, so we can manipulate it.) The difference between what a ­thing is and how it appears generates an inner, structural instability, a fragility exactly like the hamartia or “flaw” of a tragic hero. This hamartia defines the style of a par­tic­u­lar entity the par­tic­u­lar way that its cookie is ­going to crumble. It is capable of crumbling all by itself; it ­doesn’t need to be pushed by something e­ lse. Now “pushing by something ­else” is exactly what we mean by mechanical theories of causality. The slippery quality of ­things, like liquid meringues, provides so much wiggle room in which dif­fer­ent stuff can happen. New stuff can happen. ­There can be novelty. It sounds trivial that new stuff can happen but actually, when you analyze it, it’s one of the most remarkable wonderful ­things about our real­ity. New stuff can happen ­because ­things ­aren’t totally locked together, incapable of tracking one another perfectly, not reducible to one another. We d­ on’t live in a static lump. Revolutions and big bangs are fetishized as theistic miracles, something coming from nothing, and in the case of revolution, it’s just the same old patriarchal story about some transcendental decider decreeing that ­things get underway, cutting into a continuum, let ­there be light. An action theory that was not so black and white ­wouldn’t make revolution so difficult to consider, ­because the basic energy of revolution is just the basic energy of nontheistic miracle, of illusionlike magical display that is the fuel of causality. Maybe the trou­ble with revolutions, for academic Marxists, is that they are too easy, too unsophisticated. We ­aren’t Action Men and we a­ ren’t Pac-­Men. And we a­ ren’t caught in terrifying prisons from which ­there is no escape at all. And being intelligent ­doesn’t mean convincing you that my idea of prison is much scarier than yours, much more fucked up, much less easy to escape from. Since when did cynical reason take over, so that the smartest person in the room is the one who says we are the most para­lyzed? T ­ here is always wiggle room, which is what slightly too-­serious Buddhists call emptiness. Emptiness is how t­hings can happen. Wiggle room comes from that fantastic lubricant, the fact that how ­things appear and how ­things are happen to be totally dif­fer­ent, yet t­ hings are never not how they are. An apple is an apple,


Timothy Morton

not reducible to bits of apple or to the fruit bowl it’s sitting in. A ­human being is a h ­ uman being, not reducible to atoms nor to the economic enjoyment mode in which she or he is caught. Neoliberalism, global warming—­ these big bad ­things we care about—­are physically huge, but ontologically tiny. T ­ here is wiggle room. We can do this. Miracles are not the exception that proves the rule that real­ity is a boring assemblage of gray machinery chugging away under­neath appearances. Miracles are exactly how causality as such functions. John Cage wrote, “The world is teeming. Anything could happen.”5 TWO

Max Weber was among t­hose who inaugurated the discipline of sociology over a ­century ago, but sociology’s structuring princi­ple excludes the foundational concept on which it is based: charisma. Weber argued that charisma-­based socie­ties give way to “disenchanted,” bureaucratic socie­ ties. But sociology does not see its task as related to exploring disenchantment. Sociology acts just like the bureaucratic society that Weber argues is its birthplace; sociology is part of the logistics of what Weber called “the disenchantment of the world.” Sociology is wary of its found­er’s concept, which was a ­little disturbing at the time too, since charisma has to do with forces that many described as super­natural or paranormal. Weber was himself fascinated by the paranormal. In general, you can think of modernity—­world history since the ­later 1700s—as a profoundly awkward dance of including and excluding the paranormal. Freud, for instance, developed his theories as a way to domesticate the theory of hypnosis, which was in turn a domestication of the idea of animal magnetism, a hy­po­thet­i­cal force discovered by Mesmer, hence Mesmerism, ­later in the eigh­teenth ­century. Animal magnetism is to all intents and purposes identical with The Force of Star Wars fame; it is, as Obi Wan Kenobi observes, an “energy field” that “surrounds” and “penetrates” us, and we can interact with it, with healing and destructive consequences.6 Consider a very well-­known example, Marx’s description of commodity fetishism: A commodity appears at first sight an extremely obvious, trivial ­thing. But its analy­sis brings out that it is a very strange ­thing, abounding in metaphysical

Use the Force 73 subtleties and theological niceties. So far as it is a use-­value, ­there is nothing mysterious about it, w ­ hether we consider it from the point of view that by its properties it satisfies h ­ uman needs, or that it first takes on t­hese properties as the product of h ­ uman l­abour. It is absolutely clear that, by his activity, man changes the forms of the materials of nature in such a way as to make them useful to him. The form of wood, for instance, is altered if a ­table is made out of it. Nevertheless the t­ able continues to be wood, an ordinary sensuous t­ hing. But as soon as it emerges as a commodity, it changes into a ­thing that transcends sensuousness. It not only stands with its feet on the ground, but, in relation to all other commodities, it stands on its head, and evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas, far more wonderful than if it w ­ ere to begin dancing of its own ­free w ­ ill.7

Marx is arguing that capital makes ­tables compute value as if they ­were even weirder than the dancing ­tables of the quasireligion of spiritualism.8 And so on—­examples of this secret, almost completely untold, history of modernity are everywhere once you start to look. The paranormal is what religion was already excluding, religion being the way Neolithic society—­other­wise known as “Axial Age” or “agricultural” society, agricultural according to models such as that established in the Fertile Crescent 12,500 years ago—­monopolized what Weber calls charisma, restricting it to the King who has the hotline to the God or Gods whom he hears ringing in his ears, telling him to tell the p­ eople what to do, what to do never being “dismantle agricultural society, which has created patriarchy and tyranny in the name of sheer survival, and return to hunter-­gathering and a less violent, less hierarchical coexistence with nonhuman beings.” That sounds like absurd primitivism, which is a shame. Heaven forbid we stop the logistical functioning of the world of agriculture, which eventually gave rise to global warming, which was precisely and ironically what it was set up to evade in 10,000 BCE. Restructuring or destructuring this logistics, which elsewhere I have called agrilogistics, is the one t­hing that would end global warming, but it is usually considered out of bounds, b­ ecause it implies accepting a non-­ “modern” view.9 The modern view was established on (although it thinks itself as a further disenchantment of) now ancient and obviously violent mono­the­isms, which in turn find their origin in the privatization of enchantment in the Neolithic with its “civilization.” We are all still Meso­ potamians. We are Neolithic ­humans confronting the disaster the Neolithic


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fantasy of smoothly functioning agricultural logistics has wrought, and we want to hold on to the philosophical under­pinnings of ­those logistics for dear life. The raging wall of re­sis­tance is directly proportional not to how impossible or difficult such a dismantling would be, but rather to how easy it is. It is easy ­because the logic underpinning Neolithic logistics is very obviously (when you study it) riddled with unsustainable paradoxes that result in cognitive, let alone social, vio­lence (in the conventional sense, between ­humans) and ecological vio­lence (in the conventional sense, regarding nonhumans). It is biologically true that we ­aren’t totally Neolithic—­ humans have three-­million-­year-­old bodies infused with Neanderthal DNA, and so on—­but it is also philosophically and po­liti­cally true. ­Those on the supposed other side of the fence—­the so-­called deep ecologists and the anarcho-­primitivists—­are only perpetuating agrilogistics and its devastating Nature concept, the idea that ­humans and nonhumans are profoundly dif­fer­ent, based on needing to categorize ­human social space as a war against such ­things as “weeds” and “pests.” Such needs are intrinsic to agrilogistics, the survival-­at-­any-­cost strategy that began in the early Holocene and that has given rise to the feedback loops we now recognize only too well via the Sixth Mass Extinction Event, namely the fact that, among other t­ hings, 50 ­percent of what biology calls animals (as opposed to fungi and viruses, for instance) have been wiped off the face of Earth in the last fifty years, ­because of anthropogenic global warming.10 It is too easy to dismantle the philosophical basis of our “world” (aka “civilization”). Without this basis, that world would collapse. The only ­thing inhibiting us is our habitual investment in that world, vis­i­ble in the re­sis­tance to wind farms—we like our energy invisible, underground in pipes, so that we can enjoy the view. The very mention of changing our energy throughput raises the specter of the constructedness of our so-­called Nature. Think of the birds the turbines w ­ ill kill! (Think of the entire species wiped out by not having the turbines and so forth.) Think of the dreams we ­will be disturbing! We want to remain comfortable in our thanatological world. Death is comfortable, as Freud observed.11 The 1970s ecofeminists ­were correct. We live in a death culture, an extinction culture. Dismantling the under­pinnings of agricultural logistics involves dismantling the “metaphysics of presence,” the idea that to exist is to be constantly pres­ent. This idea is hardwired into Neolithic social space (you can

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feel it in the gigantic, empty car parks outside the superstore, the big box ­houses sprawling in suburban nonplace, the nihilism and murder-­suicide of the mass shooters with their Social Darwinist replication of neoliberal paradigms). To exist, according to this, is to be a lump of extended stuff under­lying appearances. Real­ity is a plastic, unformatted surface waiting for us (­humans) to write what we want on it: “Where Do You Want to Go ­Today?” (the 1990s Win­dows ad); “Just Do It” (Nike); “I’m the Decider” (George Bush); “We create realities” (Iraq War press conference, 2005). ­There is the regular flavor of this metaphysics, default substance theories. Scholarship tends to think it is superior to them, but they shape our physical life, which we happily reproduce, and we reproduce them in the more sophisticated, flavored upgrades, which speculative realism calls correlationism. Correlationism is the Kantian (and post-­Kantian) idea that a ­thing i­sn’t real u ­ ntil it has been formatted by the Subject/History/ human economic relations/Will to Power/Dasein. In a way it’s a worse (in the sense of more ecologically destructive) version of the regular substance ontology flavor. According to default substance ontology, to be a ­thing is to be a featureless extensional lump decorated with accidents. The basic real­ity of ­things is that they are this long and that wide and this long lasting; the fact that they are green or remind me of my aunt is accidental. Now t­here a­ren’t even blue whales—­there are only blue ­whales when we say t­here are. And lo and behold, it came to pass—­there ­were no longer any blue ­whales. Happily, that par­tic­u­lar extinction failed to occur. It did not happen ­because ­people became enchanted by recordings of w ­ hale sounds in the mid 1970s. Enchanted. What does it mean? In terms of charisma, it means some of us submitted to an energy field emitted by the sounds of the ­whales. The fact that this is a wholly unacceptable, beyond the pale way of describing what happened is a painful and delicious irony. But what if it w ­ ere actually true? What would the emission of such an energy field imply? It would imply, for a start, that art i­sn’t just decorative candy. It would imply what “civilized” philosophy from Plato on has been afraid of, the fact that (shock horror) art has an effect on me over which I am not in control. Art is demonic: it emanates from some unseen (or even unseeable) beyond in the sense that I am not in charge of it and ­can’t quite perceive it directly, in front of me, constantly pres­ent. A dangerous causative flickering. In other words, magic. Magic is taboo cause and effect, or


Timothy Morton

unthinkable cause and effect: ­either ridicu­lous or dangerous or impossible, or some weird borrowed-­kettle combination of all three. (How can something be impossible and dangerous?) What we are talking about is what Einstein called spooky action at a distance, by which he meant quantum entanglement, but which also means what happens if one visualizes the Rothko Chapel even if one i­sn’t ­there, even if one has never seen the Rothko Chapel, perhaps even if one has never actually seen a Rothko painting, or a postcard of a Rothko painting. We might conventionally argue that the charisma of the Rothko painting is bestowed upon it by ­humans: this would be the acceptable Hegelian way of putting it. We make the King be the King by investing in him. Investing what? Psychic energy—­which if you recall, is a domestication of the Force-­like animal magnetism. But in practice, the humanities and social sciences tend to accept that t­here are only plastic extension lumps out ­there decorated with accidents, and that they have some kinds of h ­ uman meaning. What if this attitude w ­ ere not only self-­destructive in the extreme, but also—­incorrect? ­After all, as Schrödinger already argued concerning entanglement, nonlocality is the basic feature of our real­ity. The one t­hing you can rely on is that, at the very least, two tiny t­ hings (an electron, a photon—­ but now ­things on scales trillions of times larger, as previously shown) can be “entangled” such that you can do something to one of them (such as polarizing it, changing its spin) and the other ­will, for instance, polarize in a complementary way instantly—­which is to say, faster than light. And this complementary be­hav­ior happens at arbitrary distances. You can now observe two particles separated by kilo­meters behaving this way; one is on the other side of town; one is onboard a satellite, and so on—­arbitrary means “even if that particle is in another galaxy.”12 Causality just is magic. But magic is precisely what we have been trying desperately to delete. Magic implies causality and illusion, and the intertwining of causality and illusion, other­wise known in Norse-­derived languages as weirdness. Weird means strange of appearance, and it also means having to do with fate. Neolithic ontologies, the substance ontologies I have just defined, want real­ity not to be weird, ­because that would mean that appearance (the “accidental”) is inextricable from being (the “substantial”). Eventually weirdness is confined to Tarot cards and vague remarks about synchronicity. What does it mean though, to entangle illusion and causality? What it

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means is that how a ­thing appears ­isn’t just an accidental decorative candy on an extension lump. Appearance as such is where causation lives. Appearance is welded inextricably to what ­things are, to their essence—­even “welded” is wrong. Appearance and essence are like two dif­fer­ent “sides” of a Möbius strip, which are also the “same” side. A twisted loop is exactly what weird refers to, etymologically speaking. Unfortunately for the scientistic ideology that dominates our world and the neoliberalism that forces us to behave in scientistic ways to ourselves, one another and other lifeforms, the idea that appearance is where causality lives is also just straightforward modern science. Hume’s argument was precisely that when you examine ­things, what you ­can’t see directly is cause and effect. All you have are data, and cause and effect are correlations of ­those data. So that you ­can’t say, “­Humans caused global warming” or “Cigarettes cause cancer” or “This bullet you are firing at point blank range at my ­temple ­will kill me.” You can say, “It is 97% likely that …”—­thus opening the door to the deniers.13 They are in fact modernity deniers, unwilling to let go of the clunky mechanical, vis­i­ble, constantly pres­ent causality that one can point to, the sort that one is obliged to support with threats of vio­lence. Data (Latin, dare, to give) literally means t­hings that are given, and we have seen that what is given are what are called appearances. Kant underwrote this devastating insight. All we have are data not ­because ­there is nothing, but ­because t­ here are ­things, but t­ hese ­things are withdrawn from how we grasp them. Kant’s example: raindrops fall on your head, they are wet, cold, raindroppy. This is raindrop data, not the ­actual raindrops. But ­there are raindrops, not gumdrops. And they are raindroppy: their appearance is entangled with exactly what they are.14 ­Things are exactly what they are, yet never as they seem. ­Humans live in a world of tricksters. They never left the pre-­Neolithic. The concept of the Neolithic simply went viral. And we know this, ­because we have modern science. And this is the world described by OOO. According to this view, an artwork cannot be reduced to its parts or its materials, nor can it be reduced to its creator’s life nor to some other context, however defined (the last de­cade, the current geological era, the economic structure of ­human society, discourse, power-­knowledge—­anything). And art has an ­actual causal effect. Art just is tampering directly with cause and effect, ­because art is what cause and effect actually is. Art is charisma,


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pouring out of anything whatsoever, w ­ hether we ­humans consider it to be alive or sentient or not. Thus the task of dismantling the aura, which is the default self-­hating mode we have been in since modernism, is impossible. And this brings us back to a consideration of t­hings that are aesthetic in a more conventional sense. Think about art that “good taste” finds disgusting, often called kitsch. What we think we hate about kitsch is its appeal, its incomprehensible charisma. How come t­here are so many of ­these Gandalf snow globes? Do ­people actually buy this stuff ? Paradoxically ­those feelings about kitsch are saying something about art: we ­can’t control it, it’s the enjoyment of the other, it’s enjoyment without us, enjoyment almost as a palpable ­thing, like a force field. And something about what we think about art. Something not very nice: we are still Platonists at heart. But it ­doesn’t m ­ atter. Art sprays out charismatic causality despite us. And unlike a lot of ­things in our current world, and within limited par­ameters (sophistication, taste, cost), we still let it in. NOTES

1. ​Aaron D. O’Connell, M. Hofheinz, M. Ansmann, Radoslaw C. Bialczak, M. Lenander, E. Lucero, M. Neeley, D. Sank, H. Wang, M. Weides, J. Wenner, J. M. Martinis, and A. N. Celand, “Quantum Ground State and Single Phonon Control of a Mechanical Ground Resonator,” Nature 464 (March 17, 2010): 697–703. 2. ​Amir H. Safavi-­Naeini, “Observation of Quantum Motion of a Nanomechan­ ical Resonator,” Physical Review Letters 033602 ( January 17, 2012). 3. ​Bertrand Russell, ­Human Knowledge (New York: Simon and Shuster, 1948), 491. 4. ​Timothy Morton, “An Object-­Oriented Defense of Poetry,” New Literary History 43, no. 2 (2012): 205–224. 5. ​John Cage, “2 Pages, 122 Words on M ­ usic and Dance,” in Silence: Lectures and Writings (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2011), 96–97. 6. ​ Star Wars, dir. George Lucas (Hollywood, CA: Twentieth-­Century Fox, 1977). 7. ​Karl Marx, Capital, trans. Ben Fowkes (Harmonds­worth, UK: Penguin, 1990), 1.163. 8. ​Marx, Capital, 1.163. 9. ​Timothy Morton, Dark Ecol­ogy: For a Logic of ­Future Coexistence (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016). 10. ​Damian Carrington, “Earth Has Lost Half of Its Wildlife in the Past 40 Years, Says WWF,”  The Guardian, September 29, 2014, accessed October 13, 2018,

Use the Force 79 http://­www​.­theguardian​.­com​/­environment​/­2014​/­sep​/­29​/­earth​-­lost​-­50​-­wild​life​ -­in​-­40​-­years​-­wwf​/­print. 11. ​Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Plea­sure Princi­ple and Other Writings, trans. John Reddick (London: Penguin, 2003), 43–102. 12. ​Anton Zeilinger, Dance of the Photons: From Einstein to Quantum Teleportation (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010). 13. ​Judea Pearl, Causality: Models, Reasoning, and Inference (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010). 14. ​Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, trans. Norman Kemp Smith (Boston and New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1965), 84–85. BIBLIOGRAPHY

Cage, John. “2 Pages, 122 Words on ­Music and Dance.” In Silence: Lectures and Writings, 96–97. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2011. Freud, Sigmund. Beyond the Plea­sure Princi­ple and Other Writings. Translated by John Reddick. London: Penguin, 2003. Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Pure Reason. Translated by Norman Kemp Smith. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1965. Marx, Karl. Capital. Translated by Ben Fowkes. Harmonds­worth, UK: Penguin, 1990. Morton, Timothy. “An Object-­Oriented Defense of Poetry.” New Literary History 43, no. 2 (2012): 205–224. Morton, Timothy. Dark Ecol­ogy: For a Logic of ­Future Coexistence. New York: Columbia University Press, 2016. O’Connell, Aaron  D., M. Hofheinz, M. Ansmann, Radoslaw  C. Bialczak, M. Lenander, E. Lucero, M. Neeley, D. Sank, H. Wang, M. Weides, J. Wenner, J. M. Martinis, and A. N. Celand. “Quantum Ground State and Single Phonon Control of a Mechanical Ground Resonator.” Nature 464 (March 17, 2010): 697–703. Pearl, Judea. Causality: Models, Reasoning, and Inference. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010. Russell, Bertrand. ­Human Knowledge. New York: Simon and Shuster, 1948. Safavi-­Naeini, Amir H. “Observation of Quantum Motion of a Nanomechanical Resonator,” Physical Review Letters 033602 ( January 17, 2012). Star Wars. Directed by George Lucas. Hollywood, CA: Twentieth-­Century Fox, 1977. Zeilinger, Anton. Dance of the Photons: From Einstein to Quantum Teleportation. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010.




Strange ideas have been emanating from a corner of architectural discourse in recent years. They revolve around questions of what constitutes the real versus the fictitious, speculate anew about the nature of objects, and re-­ engage aesthetics as a prime component of architectural debate. I say strange, b­ ecause ­these topics seem unrelated, if not outright, contrarian, to the digital discourse on the heels of which they follow. Strange, b­ ecause all of ­these topics have antecedents reaching deep into predigital times and could therefore be easily perceived as a nostalgic attempt to revive the tropes of the past. Is this new discourse, the latest attempt by architects to turn back the clock on pro­gress as a countermea­sure to the rapid technological advancements of the digital media age? Are we simply witnessing yet another romantic reaction against the successful but overly deterministic achievements of reason? I ­will argue that the current debate about objects and the real is in fact motivated by an effort to break away from both the positivistic design ethic of pro­gress motored by technology as well as from critical stances based on rehashing disciplinary history. One only needs to briefly scan the con­ temporary landscape of work across artistic and intellectual disciplines to register numerous proj­ects that deal with similar questions and search for material and visual means to engage them. A much larger cultural shift is underway, and it is a response to a world we now recognize as profoundly ambiguous and impervious to the categories through which we conventionally define it. Atop this list of categories we find the dichotomist pair of nature and technology. While the oppositional relationship of t­hese two terms has been challenged for well over a c­ entury, only recently have we


Ferda Kolatan

been confronted with the undeniable existence of phenomena like the Anthropocene.1 ­Human and natu­ral systems of production have intertwined to create what the writer and theorist Timothy Morton calls Hyperobjects,2 vast entities such as global warming that no single category can frame. The very act of ­these entities becoming real—as hybrid objects—­renders implausible the continued adherence to the abovementioned Enlightenment categories as still meaningful or useful ­drivers for t­oday’s progressive proj­ect. The accelerated interweaving of the technological and natu­ral (or environmental) domains pres­ents not only a conceptual, ecological, and po­liti­cal prob­lem, but also an aesthetic one. It is an aesthetic prob­lem ­because ­these new hybrids are material, effectual, and sensible; and architecture as a material discipline naturally concerns itself with the adequate expression of what it perceives to be the au­then­tic real of its own respective time. Furthermore, by amending nature through technology, be it on a molecular level or on the scale of climate, con­temporary society mixes the real with the fictitious. This par­tic­u­lar breach of categories is a direct consequence of technology’s disappearing hardware presence and its subsequent reappearance as some sort of new nature. This reappearance itself is an aesthetic act. The acknowl­edgment of the dissolution of ­these categories demands new ways of design thinking and making that equally address the factual and the fictitious and move beyond the false dichotomies of the past. The current debate, which reaches from philosophy to art and architecture, is grounded in this re­orientation. 2

What are some potential ways of addressing, capturing, and expressing ­these hybrids? What type of visual work can represent this re­orientation? In order to unpack ­these questions further, I ­will describe, in some detail, a photo­g raph titled “Kamiokande”3 by the acclaimed German artist Andreas Gursky. When we step in front of the photo­graph, we experience the following: We are looking inside something, a space of some kind or perhaps an object. This something appears circular in plan, extrudes upward into a tube, hinting at the possibility of a dome-­like conclusion on top. We are prob­ably positioned right at its center. Straight ahead, perfectly symmetrical, a single wall is bending around to enwrap us in the m ­ iddle. The wall itself is entirely covered by what appears to be a grid of thousands of

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rounded, bulbous mirrors, each one reflecting a warm golden light. In fact, the scalar distortion of the lights alone creates the impression of a curved wall, since every­thing beyond abruptly dissolves into a deep darkness. Slowly we become fully immersed in this space, captivated by its beauty, somewhat reminiscent of a peculiar and anachronistic machine inside a futuristic cathedral. Upon closer examination we recognize a fine line r­ unning horizontally across the bottom quarter of the image, u ­ nder which the mirror reflections visibly dim. This line, it turns out, delineates the surface level of a ­water reservoir. The dimming of the golden glare is a result of its source now being twice removed, by mirror and by ­water. A fading reflection of a reflection. From afar, something e­ lse comes slowly into focus. At the bottom-­r ight corner of the image, two miniscule individuals, each inside an inflatable boat, float atop the crystalline w ­ ater. One standing upright inside the boat, the other frozen in the act of paddling, they appear to levitate over a dark abyss like detached ghosts. ­After this first glance, with no specific knowledge of the content of the photo­graph, we are left with questions: What is this t­ hing we are looking into? What is on the outside? What purpose does it serve? And while our minds search for pos­si­ble answers to satisfy our curiosity, a very dif­fer­ent kind of question slowly emerges: Is this even real? This last question pierces our perceptive experience momentarily like a knife. Beauty, wonderment, even awe suddenly take on a dif­fer­ent flavor and become absorbed by a disquieting sense of apprehension. At this moment, we are having an aesthetic experience. But of what kind? From the established aesthetic categories, Edmund Burke’s sublime4 springs to mind first. The depicted space in the picture mixes a quality of unease with an other­wise awe-­inspiring experience. But unlike in Burke’s definition, this unease does not feed off the ambivalence between terror and safety. Rather, the quality of unease stems from the photo­g raph’s hyperrealism, which displays what Charles Baudelaire would call a hint of the bizarre.5 Baudelaire uses the term “bizarre” to describe a broken kind of beauty, one that he saw proliferate around him as industrialization transformed cities in the nineteenth c­ entury. Bizarre w ­ ere, for him, the novel aesthetic effects that technology rapidly imprinted on everyday life—­like a stain or a scar—­turning them repulsive and desirable at the same time. Gursky’s Kamiokande also deals with the impact of technology, but he only alludes


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to a technological device, which appears seamlessly incorporated within the totality of the image. ­Here, unlike in Baudelaire’s modern world, we no longer see disfiguration or overt surface tension between affliction and afflicted. The object in the photo­graph shows no signs of strug­gle, appearing instead fully content and undisturbed in its beauty. The sense of bizarre is evoked by something ­else: a well-­guarded, deep-­seated, and subtle ambiguity in regard to the authenticity of the object in the photo­graph. This ambiguity, the suspenseful doubt it raises in our minds t­ oward the realness of the image’s content, is not the product of indecisiveness but the inevitable outcome and expression of the eerie amalgamation of the categories of nature and technology. The authenticity of a t­hing—­the quality that makes it real—­relies on categorical clarity. As Walter Benjamin pointed out, an artwork’s aura depends on its authenticity, which in turn is determined by what he calls the “here-­and-­now.”6 While Benjamin was referring to mechanically reproduced copies as lacking of the here-­and-­now, a similar argument can be made for Gursky’s picture-­ object. By dissolving the categorical bound­aries of nature and technology, the “­here,” if not the “now,” gets lost. The “­here” of course is not only a geo­graph­ic­ al position in space, but also and more critically a categorical location through which we place objects into territories like nature or technology. It is through this placement and the subsequent belonging that an object acquires authenticity. The bizarre quality in the photo­g raph could then be described as an aesthetic expression brought on by the loss of an au­then­tic real. The image depicts a floating object with no clear categorical affiliation. In a curious reversal of Benjamin’s dictum however, this “here-­less” object seems to gain its aura precisely by being categorically uprooted. Our experience of this artwork, it appears, is being ­shaped by a novel kind of aesthetic, which I would like to call the aesthetic of the allusive object. 3

Having circled tighter around some of the aesthetic qualities of the object in the photo­graph, let us now reveal, in factual terms, what the real-­life object Kamiokande actually is: Kamiokande stands for “Super Kamioka Neutrino Detection Experiment,” a scientific fa­cil­it­y located in Japan, built primarily for the detection of neutrinos (mostly produced by solar explosions) and

In Pursuit of the Allusive Object 87

proton decay. Kamiokande is buried deep inside Mount Ikeno in order to reduce unwanted rays and particles from entering the detector core, and also to minimize the effects of seismic movements. The inner detector, or core, of Kamiokande is a massive ­water container made from a stainless steel cylinder and reinforced with concrete backfilling. Roughly forty meters in dia­meter by forty meters in height, the ­water tank holds up to fifty thousand tons of ultrapurified ­water. The floor, ceiling, and interior walls of the ­water tank are lined with thirteen thousand extremely sensitive photo multiplier tubes, which ­were installed to detect the faintest of light signals.7 Now we know what we are looking at. The dimensions, material description, and geometry portray a gigantic apparatus, a state-­of-­the-­art, manmade research fa­cil­it­y located deep inside a mountain in Japan. The allusion to something technological is now supplemented by the ­actual facts describing the fa­cil­i­ty itself. Yet while we know more about Kamiokande the machine, the information this knowledge is based upon appears anemic or innocuous when compared with the full-­bodied expressivity of the photo­graph—­almost like a scaffold trying to prop up a phantom. It becomes inarguably transparent that facts alone seem too circumstantial and thus fundamentally ill-equipped in evoking the sheer, visceral incredulity of this laboratory and its explicit ramifications t­oward our understanding of what constitutes the physical, real world. The factual description does not allude to but rather confidently determines the real. By ­doing so, it relies on the autonomy of the categories of fact and fiction and draws a hard line between constitution and repre­sen­ta­tion. ­A fter all— in science—­numbers, theories, equations, and proof are commonly assumed to be ­actual constituents of the real, while the technologies of mea­sure­ment are treated as objective tools. Repre­sen­ta­tion and its inherent admission of translation, cultural or other­wise, is thus seen as un-­real, and therefore left to other fields such as the humanities. This strict separation between a scientifically determined real and its artistic repre­sen­ta­tions, which run deep in our culture, becomes exposed as a fallacy when applied to categorical hybrids.8 Kamiokande, viewed purely scientifically, has already fictionalized nature into a shiny golden cage with an internal lake. It has unwittingly produced a new kind of aesthetic object fundamentally dif­fer­ent from the one described by the fa­cil­i­ty’s properties by forging together both science and nature outside of their respective traditional domains. And just as its factual properties fail to


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adequately characterize the object, Kamiokande’s ultimate scientific purpose, or raison d’être, also falls short in capturing the fuller picture. While we can easily visualize abstractly dotted particle patterns on computer screens charting vast data from the detection experiments, our grasp of Kamiokande still remains cloaked. Ultimately, the pro­cess is never the ­thing itself and neither is its output. The importance and relevance of an aesthetic repre­sen­ta­tion of phenomena like Kamiokande become evident at this juncture. Quantitative descriptions of superlative features and ambitions may trigger our imagination to conjure up the pos­si­ble worlds Kamiokande embodies, but it is the allusive object, brought to presence through Gursky’s lens, that delivers a more permeating and true impression through which ­these worlds become momentarily actualized. Super-­Kamioka the fa­cil­i­ty si­mul­ta­ neously constitutes and represents, detects and produces, our current real­ ity, and Gursky’s photo­g raph captures precisely that. Production through technological means is always contingent on cultural preferences, desires, and circumstances making it thus as much a part of the realm of facts as that of fiction. In this dual occupation of realms, in the blurring of hard categorical lines, the artwork and the technological laboratory Kamiokande become superimposed into one. 4

This superimposition of the laboratory with the artwork, the amendment of the real with the fictitious, allows us to read Kamiokande in a very dif­ fer­ent light, the now single allusive object, in a very dif­fer­ent light, as a single—­unified—­allusive object. Its truly strange condition is reflected in the photo­graph’s overall aesthetic as well as its details. The spacious interior si­mul­ta­neously exudes a claustrophobic and uncanny atmosphere. The mercilessly dense and contained character of the image reverberates the compacting of multiple reciprocal objects forged into one: a large body of scientifically treated ­water, inside a concrete structure, inside a mountain, inside the universe. In the manner of Rus­sian Matryoshka dolls, each of ­these individual entities is nestled neatly within the next and yet impossible to pull apart. If we ­were to step out of the photo­g raph and into the physical world outside, what would we see? One plausible answer is to say: a mountain.

In Pursuit of the Allusive Object 89

But would it not be more accurate to describe the mountain as the exterior of the fa­cil­i­ty itself? In that case, ­there would be no “outside” and the rock would become a building part, a functional envelope serving also as a ­giant particle sieve and a mechanical stabilizer. And still, what we would encounter outside would also be a mountain. The ambiguity of the object Kamiokande becomes discernible. Weaving further the real with the fictional, we can easily imagine the following scenario: A person hiking along the picturesque paths of Mount Ikeno unknowingly balancing herself on the rim of a gargantuan instrument, built to detect particles so infinitely small that they virtually travel unhindered through the entire mass of the earth near light speed. Inside the mountain, tightly anchored in rock and concrete, a steel w ­ ater tube patiently awaits the fulfillment of its mission: the capture of a single errant neutrino, unexpectedly bouncing off a rock molecule, leaving ­behind a trace in the purified ­water, and subsequently registering a faint subatomic signal on the hypersensible photo multipliers. Unbeknownst to the hiker atop, this teeny bounce inside the rock device, at a fraction of mea­sur­able time, may just end up changing our concepts of ­matter, space, and time. In this narrative, the realms of the scientific merge with ­those of the imagination to form a plausible expression of what is other­wise an absurd constellation of hybridized categories. The uncanny stillness emanating from the photo­graph does not contradict the cosmic vio­lence of neutrino-­ producing events, but foreshadows it. The photo­g raph is an instrument itself that renders tangible this constellation and makes it legible for us. It gives us a way to speculate about our real­ity in a unique and irreplaceable fashion. Therein lie its mystique and its power. 5

The medium of photography has a longstanding tradition in blurring the lines between a perceived and an a­ ctual real. E ­ very photo­g raph by definition has a contradictory relationship to the real­ity it depicts. The image taken is never—­and can never be—­liberated from the agency of ­either the photographer or the camera. While this contradiction is elemental to the discourse of photography in general, Gursky, like many con­temporary photog­raphers, deliberately manipulates his images in order to achieve the effect he desires. ­These manipulations (we could also call them “design”)


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are of par­tic­u­lar interest to the subject of this text as they add yet another level of fictionalization to the image. Let us examine some of the photographic techniques Gursky uses to achieve his bizarre aesthetic, which reflects so intriguingly on the object Kamiokande. The overall composition of the image is dominated by classical princi­ ples. Perfect central symmetry, complementary coloration, and harmonious part-­to-­whole relationships reassure us of known territories. But this initial impression changes quickly once the details are more closely observed and our initial comfort of the familiar gives way to suspicion. The central perspective places us just a bit above the ­water horizon, as if we ­were awkwardly suspended in midair with no structure to hold us. The initial calm we feel from the warm golden glow of mirrors is gradually transformed into agitation by the maniacal, repetitive sequencing of the bright individual lights. In t­ hese instances, familiar pictorial qualities are subtly undermined through careful misplacements and other deliberate aberrations. This produces a tension leading us to question our own intuition in regard to our relationship to the picture. But it does not stop t­ here. The inner detector in front of us just feels off in some way, planting further insecurity and doubt into our minds. While Kamiokande does look like an a­ ctual photo­graph of a real place, some vital ele­ments seem missing or altered. The level of the w ­ ater horizon, the crystalline transparency of the reservoir, the strange postures and outfits of the boating c­ ouple, and the relentlessness of the reflections are too perfect and too weird at the same time to be real. Something is lost in translation. Gursky’s skillful manipulations (I w ­ on’t spoil the work by detailing them any further) are instrumental in keeping the observer off balance. We are never made comfortable in trusting the image at face value. As the photo­graph oscillates between the realms of the real and the fictional without ever settling definitively on one, we are also continuously challenged to revise our own perspective and maintain a critical eye. This “oscillatory” effect is created through techniques of estrangement and is another impor­tant marker of an allusive aesthetic. 6

The techniques of estrangement described above are not a superficial means to provoke momentary impressions on the observer. The oscillatory effect si­mul­ta­neously distances us from, and immerses us within, the object.

In Pursuit of the Allusive Object 91

We are distanced b­ ecause we can no longer read it through the established categories of nature/technology or real/fiction. The object is no longer before us, at a safe distance ready to be examined and categorized. We are now immersed in it with no clear bound­aries of separation to hold on to. We still occupy the center but this center is no longer a place of privilege and power. The scene in front of us, the world we see in the photo­graph, is withdrawn and riddled with illusionary qualities. It is in apt irony then that the curved wall of lights, symmetrically closing in on the viewer, evokes a theater curtain embellished with shiny mirrors9—as if we, in some sort of platonic longing, expect for this curtain to lift, removing all the reflections and shadows around us and ceremonially revealing the true world ­behind it. But in our posthumanist era, such idealized musings seem misplaced. The dissolution of bound­aries has led to the subsequent loss of what we presumed to be our privileged position at the center of the world, much like the observer in Gursky’s photo­g raph. Supernovae, neutrinos, rock, steel, ­water, and multiplier tubes do not operate ­behind a curtain and neither are we its audience. The curtain is as real as it gets for us, and it w ­ on’t lift, but through its eerie reflections we may speculate on a world that evades our attempts to domesticate it. Speculation on a pos­si­ble real is a trademark of the philosophical movement of speculative realism (SR). Fittingly, the work “Kamiokande” was published in 2007, the same year speculative realist ideas first reached a larger audience via a conference at Goldsmith College.10 The participants in that seminal conference unite in their renunciation of anthropocentric and correlationist worldviews. Correlationism, as coined by Quentin Meillassoux,11 refers to the idealist Kantian paradigm that knowledge can never occur outside the mind/world correlation; we can never truly know the world beyond distorted repre­ sen­ta­tions of it in our minds. The vari­ous concepts outlined during the 2007 SR conference, and in the years since, seek to escape this dilemma by suggesting new forms of realism. Object-­oriented ontology,12 one arm of SR, has had a particularly strong influence on art and architecture over the past years.13 Its founder Graham Harman privileges objects as the main constituents of the real in opposition to more widely held beliefs that the real is made of particles (science) or immaterial relations (social sciences). Harman’s objects are both sensual (accessible) and withdrawn (inaccessible), material as well as imaginary. His definition of objects as deep and ambiguous entities is epitomized in


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Kamiokande, and supersedes common categories of judgment, which is one of the main reasons why his thinking has been so influential for architects. Having explored in some detail the characteristics of a new aesthetic and its relationship to objects and the larger cultural discourse, I would now like to use the next two chapters to relate ­these thoughts to the preceding—­and ongoing—­discourse of the digital. Many adherents of the aesthetic of the allusive object ­were initially engaged in the development of generative digital media and its introduction into architecture. As such the former can be seen as an evolution of the latter discourse. On the other hand, t­here are significant differences between t­ hese two schools of thought, seemingly pitting them against each other. In e­ ither event, it is useful to recapitulate some of the major leanings of the digital in regard to both objects and aesthetics. 7

Architecture has always produced objects but only recently have we begun to see designs that actively seek to mesh up contradictory categories such as real/fiction and nature/technology in a desire to inflect the most intriguing circumstances of our time into design. Often, ­these designs feature in their titles adjectives such as “strange,” “weird,” and “ambiguous,” which signal that this latest incarnation of object concerns itself with the exploration of incertitude rather than the establishment of axiomatic princi­ples. The notion of strange ­here does not depict an aberration from a perceived normal, but is rather understood as an inescapable quality of all objects, including ­those of architecture. This marks a significant shift in the approach to architectural design and has ushered in a renewed interest in aesthetics as the privileged medium through which to articulate architectural proj­ects. It also marks a distinct departure from the preceding progressive paradigm of the 1990s in which digitally produced, generative design was championed. During ­those formative years, driven by the quick proliferation of digital tools, the notion of aesthetics was largely sidelined within the architectural discourse. What are the reasons for this? Clearly, proj­ects developed during this period did display a rather strong and specific aesthetic signature. But the accompanying discourse, originally at least, deemed aesthetic concerns as counterintuitive and even detrimental to its core arguments and design ethic. Some of this was due to the desire to use digital technologies to swipe clean the plate of past architectural conventions and with it any reference to

In Pursuit of the Allusive Object 93

e­ ither objects or aesthetics. Naturally, neither of ­these terms seemed to provide a useful match once the materially real became superseded by the affinity of the digital to the immaterial and virtual. Instead, in this new arena, designers felt encouraged to radically depart from earthly constraints and fully embrace the potentials of vectors in binary space. Consequently, in this world of nodes and particles, connectivity ruled supreme and expressed itself primarily through the manifestation of diagrams and pro­cesses. Once the substance of architecture transitioned from the material to the diagrammatic, any concern about aesthetics seemed secondary at best. ­After all, aesthetics privileges sensual perception grounded in the material rather than the procedural or systemic around which the digital paradigm initially revolved. By extension, objects too ­were viewed as relics of the past, too static, too definitive, and too literal to fit into the free-­flowing, gravity-­defying world of networks as perpetuated by the avant-­garde of the nineties. This narrative of a seamlessly liberated, all-­ accessible, and continuously evolving ecosystem promoted an enlightened ­future, in which objects w ­ ere seen as fundamentally unequipped to overcome their spatial, po­liti­cal, and disciplinary bound­aries. And yet, paradoxically, the digital proj­ect depended on the development of a new formalism to go along with the sweeping technological and cultural innovations of its day. It needed to brand ideas adequately as novel through an equally unpre­ce­dented visual language utilizing the new repertoire of computer-­generated forms and geometries. This need for an autonomous investigation ­toward an au­then­tic, digital language in architecture was simply irreconcilable with the predigital traditions attributed to objects. Instead, references ­were made to external fields such as biology, astrophysics, and the global economy, which de facto morphed into a signature digital aesthetic supercharged with themes of science and societal prowess. All ­these narratives privileged an aesthetic of complexity with flows, patterns, and organic structures as factual expressions of deep-­seated, under­lying pro­cesses of nature. 8

The dissolution of the architectural object as the vessel for cultural content and design innovation during ­those years appeared complete and irreversible. And yet, right at the moment when the industry of digital


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techniques matured just enough to enable more streamlined productions of parametric design, objects curiously re-­emerged. Why did the digital proj­ect hit a roadblock? Did it simply run out of steam as all avant-­garde movements inevitably do? Or, did it become absorbed into the mainstream and thus forfeit its role as an innovative and radical design force? While ­there are many hypotheses, I would like to point to two in par­tic­u­lar, one concerning the digital as a tool and the other as a cultural movement. When generative digital tools first became available to a larger group of users,14 the lack of specific pre­ce­dents (and instructions) favored a spirit of ­free experimentation. The search for novelty as a design goal was baked into the newness of the tool itself. Animation software led to the development of sequential formations, algorithmic scripts led to growth structures reminiscent of natu­ral phenomena, and UV space (as opposed to Euclidian) allowed for topological explorations of surfaces. This early Cambrian explosion of digital form making then bifurcated into two main currents. One current continued the quest for an ever more exotic aesthetic, partly to further refine techniques and expressivity, partly to avoid conventionalization through practice, while the second current steered their experiments ­toward building expertise. In retrospect both ­these currents evolved in a way that helped undermine the intellectual and aesthetic pro­gress of the digital proj­ect. The former did it by isolating itself from larger questions regarding the discipline and a near singular focus on atmospheric effects. The latter current, still ongoing, did it through a positivistic coupling of technological research and design innovation, in the course of which the emphasis it places on procedural modes has overtaken its research objectives. In a reversal of process-­ to-­project relationships, the outcome h ­ ere is often the affirmation of the very protocols set up in the original experiment. This approach stands in stark opposition to earlier ambitions of utilizing computation against formulaic techniques of design. Shortly a­ fter the early experimental phase of the digital proj­ect, tendencies arose to conceptualize generative digital design in parallel to larger changes in society. A historical arc was drawn, an organic lifecycle of sorts, moving the proj­ect from earlier phases of playful infancy and formal promiscuity to its current mature state with the goal of culminating it into a fully fledged style. In this narrative, the technology of digital media and its specific tools are secondary to their cultural implications. The digital

In Pursuit of the Allusive Object 95

proj­ect is instead seen as a change agent on a global scale with ambitions to revitalize the modernist dream of a total culture. The formal language and aesthetics of the digital are heralded as beacons of a new universal style applicable in all scales and circumstances. But along with this ambition comes the inevitable prob­lem of homogeneity and even oppression. Maintaining the coherence of a style demands adherence to stylistic features and codes, severely limiting formal exploration. Aspirations to diversify the proj­ect further and develop true variability become overshadowed by an aesthetic of parametric repetition and other forms of anticipatory gradualism. Some of t­ hese failings of the digital design revolution may have triggered the re-­emergence of objects within the architectural discourse. In this sense, they could be viewed as a primarily corrective mea­sure, but given the larger cultural debate outlined above, other ­f actors and motivations seem to be at play. The example of Kamiokande demonstrates that objects are not the static ­things we made them out to be and do merit a renewed examination. While formal research in architecture over the past two de­cades was predominantly invested in forging a new aesthetic from the abstract properties of digital code, the world around us keeps producing hybrid entities, part real and part fictitious. So it is plausible that the a­ ctual corrective mea­sure responsible for the return of objects lies in our discovery of this very dif­fer­ent kind of aesthetic quality. Hybrid entities blend categories of nature, technology, and culture in unpre­ce­dented and accelerated ways. They surround us and govern everyday life, sometimes in the open, other times in the shadows. Our full awareness of their existence demands a response in the ways we think about design. Only a­ fter adequately representing hybrids in a visual and material form, as Gursky has done in his photo­graph, can we begin to develop strategies to interact meaningfully with and through them. Allusion, with its handmaiden ambiguity, is an impor­tant aesthetic device through which we can engage this pro­cess in architecture as well. NOTES

1. ​Coined by atmospheric chemist and Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen in 2000, the “Anthropocene” defines Earth’s current geological epoch as irreversibly altered by ­human production.


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2. ​Timothy Morton, Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecol­ogy ­after the End of the World (Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press, 2013). 3. ​Andreas Gursky, Kamiokande (C-­Print, 222 × 357 cm, Sprüth Magers Gallery, Berlin, Germany, 2007). 4. ​In par­tic­u­lar Burke’s notion of horror instilled by the “dark, uncertain, and confused.” Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, orig. 1756 (London: Penguin Classics, 1999). 5. ​The notion of the “bizarre” is an impor­tant concept in Charles Baudelaire’s aesthetic writings. The full quote is: “Beauty is always bizarre. I do not mean to say that it is voluntarily, coldly bizarre, ­because in that case it would be a monster. I mean that it always contains a bit of strangeness, naïve strangeness, not intentional but unconscious, and it is this strangeness that ­causes it to be particularly Beautiful.” 6. ​Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, orig. 1936 (New York: Schocken Books, 1969). 7. ​“Super-­Kamiokande,” http://­www​-­sk​.­icrr​.­u​-­tokyo​.­ac​.­jp​/­sk​/­index​-­e​.­html. 8. ​Bruno Latour provides a seminal definition of the nature of ­these “hybrids.” Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993). 9. ​Curiously, the photo­g raph “Kamiokande” rather explic­itly resembles Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s famous stage set for Mozart’s The Magic Flute from 1816. 10. ​The conference “Speculative Realism” was held at Goldsmith College, University of London, in April 2007. The moderator was Alberto Toscano and the participants w ­ ere Ray Brassier, Iain Hamilton Grant, Graham Harman, and Quentin Meillassoux. 11. ​The term “correlationism” is coined and defined by French phi­los­o­pher Quentin Meillassoux. Quentin Meillassoux, ­After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2010). 12. ​Graham Harman developed “object-­oriented ontology” in his dissertation in 1999 and has since been elaborating on it in numerous publications. Graham Harman, Tool-­Being: Heidegger and the Metaphysics of Objects (Chicago: Open Court, 2002). 13. ​One of the early architectural events directly engaging object-­oriented philosophy was the symposium “Objects and Craft: A New Paradigm for the Digital Age” during the first Istanbul Design Biennial in 2012. This roundtable was or­ga­ nized and moderated by Ferda Kolatan with participants Graham Harman, David Ruy, Jason Payne, and Rhett Russo. 14. ​An impor­tant chronological marker is the inaugural “Paperless Studio” taught at Columbia University in the fall semester of 1994. U ­ nder former dean Bernard

In Pursuit of the Allusive Object 97 Tschumi, the Gradu­ate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation (GSAPP) became one of the first schools worldwide to offer design studios mandating exclusive use of generative computational tools. BIBLIOGRAPHY

Benjamin, Walter. The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, orig. 1936 (New York: Schocken Books, 1969). Burke, Edmund. A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, orig. 1756. (London: Penguin Classics 1999). Gursky, Andreas. Kamiokande (C-­Print, 222 × 357 cm, Sprüth Magers Gallery, Berlin, Germany, 2007). Harman, Graham. Tool-­Being: Heidegger and the Metaphysics of Objects (Chicago: Open Court, 2002). Latour, Bruno. We Have Never Been Modern (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993). Meillassoux, Quentin. ­After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2010). Morton, Timothy. Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecol­ogy ­after the End of the World (Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press, 2013). “Super-­Kamiokande.” http://­www​-­sk​.­icrr​.­u​-­tokyo​.­ac​.­jp​/­sk​/­index​-­e​.­html.


Japa­nese fashion designer Junya Watatnabe’s Indigo Dyed 5 Pocket Sweat Pant, designed for famed denim brand Levi’s, are not what they seem. In a photo­g raph, they are virtually indistinguishable from a classic pair of Levi’s 501 jeans (figure 7.1). They follow all the trends in con­temporary denim design: faded front legs, linear dye streaks, frayed pockets, and so on. To anyone remotely familiar with recent fashion, t­ hey’re a rather unremarkable item. However, the pants are not denim at all. They are cotton-­linen trousers printed with a high-­resolution digital scan of a pair of Levi’s. In 2011, they ­were part of a trend called “Jog Jeans,” a move by brands such as Watanabe’s COMME des GARÇONS label MAN, fellow Japa­nese label About the Abstraction, and Diesel to increase the comfort of denim without sacrificing signature looks.1 In April of 2012, Watanabe’s printed pants ­were posted to James Bridle’s Tumblr “The New Aesthetic,” a one-­stop shop for digitally infused, con­ temporary visual culture. Bridle, a British artist, writer, and technologist, started the site in 2011 in order to showcase material he had been collecting that “points ­towards new ways of seeing the world.”2 Bridle’s thesis is that the world is undergoing fundamental visual and structural change due to the rapid spread of computation, and that this change amounts to a new aesthetic. Through its diverse collection of objects and images—­every­ thing from pixel-­patterned pillows to drone photography—­the New Aesthetic (NA) highlights the myriad ways that computational pro­cesses are shaping our perceivable world. Not long ago, computation was limited to specific items, such as personal computers; now it courses through all sorts of devices with networked functionality that often goes unnoticed. The saturation of digital technology makes it increasingly difficult to


Adam Fure

Figure 7.1 Junya Watatnabe’s Spring 2010 menswear fashion show in Paris. Model shown wearing chino paints printed with high-­resolution scan of denim. Courtesy of firstVIEW​.­com.

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detect, a fact reflected in the diversity of the NA’s posts. As an aesthetic, the NA differs from previous claims of technology-­inspired newness, in its subtlety. If previous digital aesthetics ­were loud and disruptive, ushering in waves of never-­before-­seen forms, current technologies spread quietly, finely altering the look and feel of familiar ­things. The subtle digital aesthetic of Watanabe’s jog jeans is likely what landed them on the NA site. Like much of Bridle’s content, the pants’ digital qualities are not obvious, requiring close inspection to even notice. Long regarded as a technological pioneer in his field, Watanabe’s work has not always been so restrained in regard to showcasing new technology. His 2000 show “Techno Couture,” for example, was lauded for its innovative use of con­temporary fabrics to produce a “space-­age meets organic aesthetic.”3 For this collection, Watanabe used polyester chiffon to transform the antiquated accessory of the ruff into body-­sized honeycomb volumes in colors reminiscent of computer renderings (figure 7.2). The show had all the hallmarks of unfettered technological innovation—­novel shapes, advanced materials, and cool, digital coloration. Like much techie work at the turn of the ­century, the aesthetic objective was to produce a radical break. Fast forward a de­cade, to Watanabe’s Levi’s collaboration, and one finds a much dif­fer­ent attitude and aesthetic. Advanced technology is used to make something look old—­that is, a worn-­out pair of Levi’s. The detailing, however, contradicts the simulative nature of the rest of the pants. Around the waist they are outfitted with traditional Levi’s ele­ments, such as denim ­belt loops, zippers, buttons, and rivets. On the back, an original Levi Strauss & Co. tag covers a scan of the same tag, torn and digitally smeared under­neath, creating an odd mixture of digital and physical traits (figure 7.3). ­Here, aesthetics emerge from the conflation of au­then­tic artifacts and digital duplicates, echoing a key point of the NA, namely, that the line between digital and nondigital is increasingly blurry. Watanabe demonstrates how designers can derive aesthetics from intentionally materializing this blurriness. Bridle introduced his concept of the “New Aesthetic” to the broader art and tech worlds in 2012, on a panel at the popu­lar ­music and technology festival South by Southwest (SXSW). Unsurprisingly, given the far reach of Bridle’s claims, the event sparked a wave of reactions from both popu­ lar and academic audiences.4 Academics have largely responded by linking the NA to the “postdigital,” a term used to signify the evolution of digital


Adam Fure

Figure 7.2 Model walks Junya Watanabe’s Fall 2000 Ready to Wear Collection. Courtesy of Guy Marineau/Vogue © Conde Nast.

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Figure 7.3 Raul Arantes, Databending, 2009. Courtesy of the artist.

technology from something rare and novel to something ubiquitous and familiar. If personal computers, mobile devices, and networked connectivity ­were once revolutionary technologies, they are now common fixtures of daily life. Postdigital scholarship tracks the transition of digital technology from extraordinary to ordinary, while considering the deeper effects it has on the way we see and relate to the world. The “post” in postdigital, therefore, does not imply a time a­ fter or beyond the digital; rather, it calls for an examination and evolution of what we have known as “the digital” to date.5 Over the years, theories of technology have often branded a static, fixed t­ hing—­The Digital—­rather than adapting more appropriately to the ever-­changing facets of computational life. In t­hese terms, architecture has entered a postdigital moment, a claim supported by recent publications that historicize the “digital turn” as a phenomenon that ended in 2012.6 Exact date aside, the novelty of the digital revolution in architecture has undoubtedly faded, and the field is ripe for new conversations regarding computation. The contours of such a conversation ­will be


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outlined below, emphasizing the postdigital tendencies, techniques, and aesthetics emerging in con­temporary architectural design. In aesthetic terms, the postdigital highlights the ways in which the “grain of computation” shows up in physical ­things, by revealing patterns and qualities that arise from pervasive yet often unintelligible computational pro­cesses.7 It is related to, but distinct from, other digitally influenced aesthetics, such as “glitch” and “post-­Internet.” Glitch Artists intentionally disrupt digital pro­cesses in order to produce visual distortions in vari­ous media formats. For example, manually modifying the data of an image file—­a pro­cess known as “databending”—­produces colorful, pixelated streaks (figure 7.3).8 Glitch Art often has a subversive tone, aiming to corrupt the smooth information flows of computational infrastructures. Postdigital design similarly engages broader systems, but not with the sole purpose of obstruction. Rather, it seeks to develop new sensible qualities by expressing latent aspects of design software. If glitch art exposes the hidden grain of computation, postdigital design multiplies the grains one can produce, identify, and reveal. The term “post-­Internet” has surfaced in recent years to describe a group of artists who consider the Internet to be a mundane backdrop of real­ity. Their work marks a transition away from Net Artists, who in the 1990s radically redefined artistic production and pre­sen­ta­tion vis-­à-­vis the web. Sidestepping the institutional structures of museums and galleries, Net Artists delivered their immaterial, web-­based works directly to users online. “Post-­Internet” artists have begun re-­engaging physical making while remaining acutely aware of con­temporary modes of dissemination. They are more likely to show in a gallery than their pre­de­ces­sors, but equally likely to question the nature of art in a digital age. Artist Artie Vierkant uses the term “image-­object” to describe a condition where physical and digital ele­ments are fused together in a synthetic creative act.9 His work combines traditional sculpture in a gallery with photo­graphs of ­those sculptures in that same gallery, postpro­cessed with gradients and collaged fragments to create an image that c­ an’t be assessed in conventional repre­sen­ta­tional terms; nothing is being re-­presented—­the image is itself a new object that transforms the initial content (figure 7.4).10 Vierkant’s work undoes longstanding binaries of  “original” and “copy,” as each stage in the pro­cess becomes a new object that needs not refer to something e­ lse. Additionally, distinctions between “physical” and “digital” break down when

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Figure 7.4 Artie Vierkant, Image Object, Thursday, June, 4 2015, 12:53 p.m. Courtesy of the artist.

photo­g raphs of objects blur seamlessly with digital ele­ments in a single “image-­object.” Post-­Internet art informs con­temporary notions of creativity and authorship. Historically, creativity implied imagining something new, whereas post-­Internet art often involves the collecting and sorting of existing web-­based content (so called “surfing as art”). In this way, it portrays an ordinary rather than exceptional mode of creativity, reflecting the cultural banality of the Internet as a ­whole. This ordinariness often appears as retrograde or “software-­default” digital aesthetics, such as 8-­bit graphics or crude Photoshop collages. Recently, architecture has shown its own signs of post-­Internet sensibilities with the rising popularity of historical architecture blogs,11 vari­ous forms of digital collage, “screenshot aesthetics,” and software-­default geometric primitives as building massing.12 Among young American architects in par­tic­u­lar, ­these trends are spreading at a rate that suggests a coordinated stylistic turn; however, no such claims of coordination exist.


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The NA emerged from similar conditions of aesthetic saturation with minimal theoretical framing. No manifesto accompanied Bridle’s first posts, just a general statement about the kinds of images to be shared.13 Yet, the NA registered immediately with ­those who encountered it. Despite its diverse content, the NA blog seemed to evidence the same general condition, that of the saturation of digital technology in daily life. The NA is diffuse, difficult to enumerate with exact criteria, but undeniably t­ here. Artist and writer Curt Cloninger sees the NA as technology accumulating to the point where it becomes an image.14 For him, the NA’s popularity is evidence that digital technology has amassed to the point where it needs only a Tumblr to be identified as a major cultural shift, rather than a foundational theory. A quick surf of architecture blogs points to a comparable aesthetic shift, cohesive enough to attribute its existence, but with similarly weak theoretical foundations. The discipline has not developed the theories to explain t­ oday’s digital trends. Architecture evolves by pro­cessing technological and aesthetic shifts disciplinarily, yet the speed of digital media makes this difficult and design theory is playing catch-up. Architecture is poised for a new wave of theory that addresses changing attitudes ­toward the use of digital technology. Postdigital in sensibility, this theory ­will differ from past discourses. The revolutionary tenor of early digital experimentation ­will give way to a more mea­sured tone, one that resists unbridled fascination and positivist rationale. Postdigital design discourse moves beyond captivation with the novelty of the digital in order to explore sensibilities that emerge from an understanding of computation as a background condition of our real­ity. It calls for a critical examination of the tools and technologies we take for granted, while si­mul­ta­neously connecting our working methods to larger cultural shifts underway in regard to ubiquitous computation.15 SYSTEM-­ORIENTED VERSUS OBJECT-­ORIENTED AESTHETICS

The interconnectedness of ­people, ­things, and technological systems is the basis of aesthetics in the NA. Tracing its genealogy, Christiane Paul and Malcolm Levy explain the formative influence of early theories of technology such as cybernetics and systems aesthetics. Cybernetics explains the way organisms and systems operate and adapt through communication, control, and feedback. Paul and Levy credit cybernetics for a major shift in

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the conception of an organism from something isolated and discrete to something inextricably linked with its surroundings.16 Key to this shift is the parallelism between nature and machines. In cybernetics, h ­ umans are said to pro­cess information in much the same way as computers. Although cybernetics faded in importance in the de­cades a­ fter its introduction in the 1940s, it led to key concepts such as Jack Burnham’s “systems aesthetic,” a theory relating art and cultural production to the logics of systems. According to Paul and Levy, Burnham believed that the relationships between ­things (both organic and nonorganic) w ­ ere more impor­tant than the ­things themselves. In Burnham’s formulation, change derives not from what ­things are, but rather how they act, a shift from an “object-­ oriented” to a “systems-­oriented” idea of culture.17 Paul and Levy see the NA as a con­temporary manifestation of systems-­oriented aesthetics in that objects come to express or symbolize the vast interconnected pro­ cesses from which they emerge. Despite being half a ­century old, Burnham’s distinction between “object-­oriented” and “system-­oriented” bears acute relevance to con­ temporary discourses on aesthetics, particularly in architecture. In recent years, a debate has surfaced between t­hose who believe our discourse should focus on the physical output of architecture (objects) versus t­ hose who believe we should focus first and foremost on the complex contexts with which architecture interacts (systems). The computer is a major ­factor in this debate, but primarily as a ­thing of the past. The introduction of personal computers into the design studio in the 1990s aided emerging conceptions of architectural form as the result of dynamic forces. Utilizing software from the aviation and animation industries, early digital pioneers, such as Greg Lynn, experimented with generating form through computer simulations of fields of forces, such as vehicular and pedestrian flows on a site.18 In time, this shift from “object” to “field” moved beyond the building and its immediate context to consider the broader web of environmental, economic, and social forces that shape architecture.19 This approach, often referred to as “ecological,” sees the individual artifact as inextricably linked to its environment, rather than as an autonomous entity. This includes sustainability, where a building’s impact on the environment is paramount, but also numerous other approaches that consider architecture alongside extradisciplinary forces, such as infrastructure, energy, and agriculture.20


Adam Fure

The rise of ecological approaches to design has prompted a backlash from architects who believe it has weakened our theoretical grasp of architectural objects. Influenced by the emerging philosophy of object-­ oriented ontology (OOO), they point to limitations with strictly “relational” approaches to architectural thinking, advocating instead for a discourse centered on questions of what it means to be an object in architecture. Currently this debate is being framed in oppositional terms, recalling Burnham’s distinction between “objects” and “systems” mentioned above. Seen through the lens of the NA and the postdigital, however, architecture’s current ontological and aesthetic status is much murkier. Like NA objects, architecture is both discrete and enmeshed within broader computational networks; assessing it requires a mixture of both object-­ oriented and system-­oriented concepts, a point to which I ­will return to below. Among the opponents of the ecological approach to design is David Ruy, who in his essay “Returning to (Strange) Objects,” describes the recent influence of ecological theory on architectural practice and discourse.21 In the face of pending environmental collapse, Ruy explains, architecture has turned to ecological concepts to better understand its interconnectedness with the world. The risk of such an approach, according to Ruy, is that if taken to an extreme, ecological practice leads to a loss of identity for both architectural objects and practice. As Ruy states, “The ­grand finale of architecture’s movement from object to field may very well be the collapse of the architectural object into a field of relations that then dissolves into a general ecological field of relations that constitutes the world. And thus, architectural practice unintentionally becomes subsumed by ecological practice.”22 Seeking an alternative, Ruy turns to the philo­ sophy of Graham Harman who cautions against such “relationalism.” For Harman, a completely relational understanding of the world, such as the ecological one mentioned above, cannot account for how ­things change. Existentially speaking, if objects w ­ ere simply the sum of their relations at any moment in time, then ­there would be nothing causing them to alter. In order for objects to leave one constellation of relations for the next, something must be motivating them, which Harman attributes to a reserve of being within objects. According to Harman, objects are always entering into relations with other objects, but never to the point where the entirety of their existence is manifest. The remainder of objects, the part

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that is withdrawn from any interaction, is what drives it to change.23 For Ruy, the ecological approach runs a risk of undermining the significance of architecture as a unique t­hing in the world, irreducible to its relations. He thus calls for a return to architectural objects, while admitting that this might not be such a straightforward affair. For example, he cautions against literal interpretations of “objects,” or a revitalization of past disciplinary preoccupations, such as “character” or “composition.”24 Further, he questions the role of the architect in the design pro­cess, pointing to the radical proposition of Harman’s ontology that p­ eople are objects too. In this way, Ruy foreshadows new definitions of both authors and objects, both of which I ­will address below. Harman considers the encounters between objects to be aesthetic in nature. In his ontology, the world is split in two. On one side are sensual objects, which we interact with on a day-­to-­day basis (what we can see, touch, and smell), and on the other side, real objects, which are withdrawn from ­human access. At any moment in time, only part of an object is presented to experience. The withdrawn part is in excess of experience and escapes our attempts to comprehend, classify, or make use of objects. We encounter this excess aesthetically; we sense it, feel it, but fail when we try to place it into pre-­existing epistemological structures. This schism between sensing and knowing Harman calls “allure,” which he describes as “a special and intermittent experience in which the intimate bond between a ­thing’s unity and its plurality of notes somehow partly disintegrates.”25 In other words, from time to time we sense that t­ here is more to objects than what is in front of us, something beneath its manifest qualities. This is the sensual object pointing to its withdrawn counterpart, hinting at hidden ontological depths. The withdrawn essence of objects is the root of Harman’s aesthetics. Steven Shaviro describes it as “objects isolated in their vacuums” where connections between them are “extraordinary, fragile, and contingent.”26 Shaviro’s metaphysical preoccupation is the opposite of Harman’s, namely, the impossibility of separation and isolation from the world. For Shaviro, interconnectedness is not an occasional, fragile occurrence; it is the defining characteristic of con­temporary life. Our surfeit connectivity is inescapable and overwhelming, “we are continually beset by relations, smothered and suffocated by them.”27 This is particularly the case with digital media technology, a case made in Shaviro’s 2003 book Connected, or What It Means


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to Live in the Network Society. To contrast Harman’s concept of allure, Shaviro posits his own aesthetic notion, that of  “metamorphosis.” If allure draws us inward, ­toward an object’s “vacuum-­sealed” core, metamorphosis takes us outward, t­ oward an object’s vital connectivity with the world.28 In allure, qualities peel away from an object, while in metamorphosis they are continually in flux, fading in and out of background conditions in a dynamic pro­cess of becoming. Allure and metamorphosis map well to Burnham’s distinction between “object-­oriented” and “systems-­oriented” (respectively) mentioned above and help clarify the aesthetic specificity of postdigital design in art and architecture. Both aesthetic concepts apply to postdigital objects, which are discrete, identifiable, and stable, but also inextricably linked with their surroundings. Postdigital objects are alluring, but that allure does not point to hidden ontological depths, rather it points to the ubiquitous connectivity influencing its becoming. Postdigital objects have a double aesthetic draw: they express traces of hidden ge­ne­tic codes and evoke their pervasive connectivity with the world. Postdigital objects are entangled with their surroundings, enmeshed with the vast computational pro­cesses that influence how and what they are. The subtle, occluded nature of t­ hose pro­ cesses is what makes postdigital objects alluring. AUTHORS POSTDIGITAL

For the first wave of digital designers, the computer was largely a tool, albeit one with revolutionary capacity. Early pioneers, such as Greg Lynn and Preston Scott Cohen, began experimenting with complex geometries before personal computers w ­ ere readily available.29 The introduction of the computer into the design studio greatly increased their capacity to produce complex forms, but the concepts underwriting the work predated the use of ­actual design software. For architects like Lynn and Cohen, designing in the computer was novel, experimental, and inevitably amateurish. The computer retained a degree of novelty ­until the mid-2000s, but by then amateurism had evolved into expertise, and experimentation was replaced with the demonstration of virtuosity.30 More recently, the novelty of the computer has all but completely faded. Computers have drifted into the background of architectural production and their use turned habitual. In part, this is due to the rise of computation in other

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domains of life. Computers ­can’t be novel if w ­ e’re surrounded by them, and they mediate nearly ­every aspect of our daily real­ity. Despite the ordinariness of computers, designers are exploring computational mediums in new and meaningful ways. The self-­conscious digital aesthetics that result from such explorations are not trivial surface effects, but a genuine attempt at expressing the depth and breadth of computation. Computers are no longer seen as black boxes pro­cessing inputs and outputs, nor “tools” bent to the ­will of the architect. In fact, the computer (or any other single device: 3D printer, industrial robot, CNC router, ­etc.) may no longer be the appropriate site of philosophical reflection in regard to our current digital situation. Computation is not limited to computers anymore; it’s all around us. We now face an ecol­ogy of digital media that affects us empirically, ontologically, and aesthetically. Architecture is likely experiencing what new media theorist Lev Manovich described in 2001 as “transcoding,” a pro­cess by which the computer’s “ontology, epistemology, and pragmatics” fundamentally transform the cultural content that develops from its use.31 In transcoding, the artifacts that emerge from using digital technology deeply resemble its internal structures and logics. In other words, we start to see, think, and make like computers. For an example of transcoding in architecture, one might point to the popu­lar trend of placing digital color gradients in architectural repre­sen­ta­ tions. Recently, gradients have replaced solid colors and images of physical skies as the background of choice for drawings and renderings, and this happened at precisely the moment that rendering engines made photorealism as s­ imple as hitting a button.32 ­Today, architects are placing their speculative designs in overtly digital environments, rather than realistic physical settings. Stylistic imitation is no doubt at play h ­ ere,33 but I believe this trend signals a deeper shift; namely, designers are starting to see the computer not as a tool to represent the “real,” but as itself another real, one in which they are deeply embedded. Computational environments are becoming the default and defining contexts for architectural production. Real space is shifting from the physical world of buildings to the infinite, gravity-­less modeling environments of Rhino and Maya and the layered canvases of Illustrator and Photoshop. Though the ultimate outcome of this shift is unclear, it no doubt signals a new direction for architecture’s visual culture. Transcoding leads to a more participatory model of working with computation. The gap between our logical structures and t­hose of the


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computer is closing. Brian Cantwell Smith, a computer scientist turned phi­los­o­pher, attributes this gap to an essential difference in our respective repre­sen­ta­tional structures. We cannot understand computers on a fundamental level, but we can engage their inner workings, be­hav­iors, and routines, through reflective use. Smith argues that in order to fully engage computers, one needs to build, modify, and operate them.34 In d­ oing so, “we become enmeshed with them in a participatory fashion, in a way that both transcends and also grounds the repre­sen­ta­tional attitudes we bear ­towards them.”35 Smith is referring ­here to the widespread bias among coders that t­ hose who remain ignorant to the inner workings of computers cannot fully understand them, but I believe meaningful engagement of computation can occur from any number of expository practices that attempt to scratch the surface of software. Smith goes onto posit a more fundamental ontological claim, namely that subjects and objects are not a priori entities, but result from “co-­ construction.” In Smith’s metaphysical account, subjects and objects engage in a dynamic back and force that ignites vari­ous capacities. His ideas resemble Harman’s in that the connection is always limited. When we use computers, we access an incomplete set of potentials. Likewise, the computer initiates in us a similarly limited set of abilities. Each act of computational design is a unique moment of existence, where subject and objects are co-­constructed. Returning to Ruy’s question of the role of the architect in an object-­oriented framework mentioned above, we can posit a less hierarchical definition of subject and object in regard to computation. Rather than masters executing commands, we are participants in a type of computational becoming. Our abilities as designers are activated through the computational pro­cesses afforded to us. Such models of computational collaboration have been advanced in architecture before; however, they have mainly pertained to scripting and digital fabrication. The back and forth I am describing works on aesthetic, conceptual, and cultural levels, not just the material. As Shaviro tells us, our connection to network culture is overwhelming, immersive, and multivalent. The ways in which we interface with computers are not trivial ­matters of procedure; they are tied to impor­tant po­liti­cal and capitalistic structures. Architecture is part of a greater shift transpiring in regard to the way digital technology mediates life. The effects of computation are far more diffuse

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than ­those of the first “digital turn,” which was limited to discrete sectors of architectural production, such as fabrication and form making. Working through digital mediums ­today requires broader understandings of how computation operates in the marketplace. Software development, for example, tends t­oward prescription in regard to creativity. Christian Ulrik Andersen and Søren Pold point to numerous instances where tech companies turn disruptive technologies into commercialized products. For example, the revolutionary file-­sharing sites Napster and Pirate Bay wreaked havoc on the ­music industry, but w ­ ere quickly coopted by Apple and Spotify and turned into sanitized music-­streaming ser­vices.36 Companies trying to turn a profit frequently transform radical technologies created by ­people attempting to de­moc­ra­tize content into revenue generators. Regardless of the utopic aspirations b­ ehind technological innovations, tech companies capture, reduce, and prescribe their f­uture effects. This is not an isolated instance; it is a fundamental aspect of software development in a free-­ market economy. Software’s tendency to delimit and prescribe creative output can be counteracted by efforts to author qualities that typically go unnoticed, moving beyond senseless execution ­toward deeper explorations of digitally native forms of expression, and thus resisting aesthetic codification. Further, in order to fully understand the significance of our digital habits, designers must address architecture’s connection to larger computational structures. Andersen and Pold make a similar claim in relation to the NA: For new aesthetics to be meaningful it must point beyond the domain of the sensory that other­wise characterizes the aesthetics (aesthesis, Greek for “sense-­ perception”) and enter the technological and structural domains; it must point to how the technologies themselves are also cultural constructs. As a critical theory, new aesthetics must be able to show traces of how computational media technologies and interfaces formulate new visions of life (work, play, creativity, politics, economics, art, ­etc.) and how visions of life are embedded in digital objects at all levels (from the technical infrastructures to the human-­ computer interaction.)37

Current digital design practice is not a m ­ atter of rehearsing technique for the sake of demonstrating virtuosity. Instead, it reflects a desire to grapple with computation as the “­water” in which we live,38 and through that deeper understanding to reveal a capacity to influence ubiquitous


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digitality through design. Approaching design postdigitally allows us to critically engage our tools and techniques and to situate them within the larger cultural contexts. OBJECTS POSTDIGITAL

To conclude, I w ­ ill address Ruy’s other question regarding the nature of architectural objects mentioned above; namely, what are they? Is an object a building? A place? Does it connote physicality? According to OOO, the answer is “no,” or at least “not necessarily.” Physical entities are objects, but so are properties, ideas, and institutions. OOO is a philosophy that applies to “anything whatsoever,” not just the subject and object of classical Western metaphysics.39 It depicts a flat ontology, where every­thing exists, not just that which is perceived by h ­ umans. In addition, objects are stable; they are not reducible to deeper material realities, such as atoms or bits, nor can they be explained away as mere appearances of some greater force—­what Harman calls “undermining” and “overmining,” respectively.40 Objects exist on their own terms, but also within o ­ thers objects, creating what phi­ los­o­pher Levi Bryant calls “strange mereology.”41 In mathe­matics, ontology, and logic, mereology is the study of parts and w ­ holes. OOO makes mereology strange by attributing metaphysical in­de­pen­dence to objects even when they are part of another object. For example, according to OOO, the hard drive to which I am currently saving this essay is a metaphysically in­de­pen­dent object. When it combines with other objects (CPU, RAM, graphics card, ­etc.) it creates another: my MacBook Air. This scales up; the MacBook Air is part of an economic strategy (also an object). It was introduced at MacWorld 2008 by Steve Jobs as “the world’s thinnest notebook,” adding to Apple’s already highly profitable portable computer line, which includes the MacBook Pro and in 2008 the MacBook. Furthermore, Apple is part of the IT industry (object), the vast collection of companies involved in the design, construction, and selling of computers and software, and so on and so forth. Applied to architecture then, OOO might designate an object to be a stair, win­dow, roofline, or flashing detail, but also a concept, a fictitious building, or the color “red” in a drawing. Such flexibility in signification requires ­those adopting an OOO framework in architecture to explic­itly define the object they are addressing. For the purposes of this paper, I ­will

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start with an obvious choice: buildings. Particularly, I am interested in the moment when a building, or a part thereof, becomes a ­thing. I use the term “­thing” in a vein similar to Bruno Latour and Bill Brown, the latter the founder of  “­Thing Theory,” a branch of critical theory that focuses on the relationships between p­ eople and objects, and which often includes Latour’s writings.42 Latour considers objects to be “matters-­of-­fact,” like the objects of science, which we understand to have a par­tic­u­lar function and exist in stable ways.43 When objects are stable and predictable, they reflect back to us ­things about ourselves: our history, our nature, our culture, and so on. An object becomes a t­ hing when that communication breaks down, when an object appears as something other than a s­ imple fact, when it confronts us, and changes the way we relate to it. T ­ hings emerge from the excess of objects, from that which exceeds its conventional use or its straightforward appearance. Latour uses the example of the space shut­tle Columbia, which in 2003 instantaneously changed from a masterful feat of engineering (object with a purpose) into a disintegrated cloud of debris that gathered the attention and sympathy of millions (a potent, tragic “­thing”). Following Latour, how might buildings become ­things? Or in the pres­ent context: postdigital t­ hings? The description of buildings as unremarkable, functional objects is not much of a stretch; Walter Benjamin made us aware of this fact years ago when he described the default condition of architectural reception as one of  “distraction.”44 In regard to the current topic of the postdigital, a building (or part thereof) becomes a ­thing when it disrupts two backgrounds: first, architecture as the functional background of life, not so much perceived as used, and two, the background of computation, which is active and omnipresent, but often unintelligible. Two proj­ects that begin to express postdigital thingness are H3333333K, by art collective !Mediengruppe Bitnik, and Glass Farm, by MVRDV. The former began in 2015, when !Mediengruppe Bitnik won a competition to redesign the façade of the new House of Electronic Arts in Basel with a proposal that turned the visual language of computer glitches into concrete building (figure 7.5). The design pro­cess involved manipulating a digital photo­g raph of the façade with custom software to produce a series of horizontal streaks. ­These images w ­ ere then materialized as breaks in conventional building ele­ments, such as down spouts, pilasters, and hand railings (figure 7.6).45 To avoid readings of more conventional patterns, the breaks are inconsistent across

Figures 7.5 and 7.6 !Mediengruppe Bitnik, H3333333K, public art piece on the façade of House of E ­ lectronic Arts Basel (Switzerland), 2015. Courtesy of Kathrin Schulthess.

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the length of the façade. Adding to the “glitchy” quality is the fact that the ele­ments are all straightforward building components, which we expect to look and behave in a certain way, but ­because they are broken indicate something’s gone awry. In 2013, Dutch architecture firm MVRDV completed construction on Glass Farm, a 1,600-­m2 glass building s­ haped like a traditional Schijndel farm­house (figure 7.7). The building’s form is straightforward, filling out the zoning envelope while referencing the local agrarian context. Its materiality, however, is more peculiar. In place of traditional farm­house materials, MVRDV clad the building in fritted glass printed with an image of a “typical farm.” As a design pro­cess, Glass Farm demonstrates postdigital sensibilities in three major ways. First, the printed imagery is created by merging data from a series of existing farm­houses to produce an origin point that exists only in the computer.46 When applied to the façade, the images are enlarged to one and a half times their normal size, producing a second postdigital effect—­plasticity of scale. The oversizing of doors and win­dows is unusual for visitors, but natu­ral when considering the digital space from which the images came. A fundamental aspect of digital modeling environments is the mobility of the viewing camera. When modeling physically, a scale is set early, which fixes how one sees and interacts with an object. In digital space, however, each tumble, pan, and zoom changes one’s perception of a model. Seen in this light, the scaling of the farm­house imagery seems like a digital zoom gone a touch too far, a subtle hint at the computational origins of the building’s façade. Lastly, apertures are created by selectively removing the frit in a manner reminiscent of Photoshop commands. Rather than align transparent portions of glass with the conventional win­dows in the imagery, MVRDV carves fuzzy, figural shapes out of the frit depicting brick walls (figure 7.8). In this way, Glass Farm’s materiality owes more to the logic of pixels than brick and mortar, rendering construction a fundamentally digital act. ­These buildings diagram a type of architectural experience where basic functional and aesthetic assumptions are disturbed, eliciting a second look (and thought), thus moving building from object to ­thing. They offer clues to how postdigital architectural aesthetics might differ from ­those of the first digital turn. The spectacular feats of geometry and construction that characterize the latter offer aesthetic experiences that rely on the shock of the new. H3333333K and Glass Farm, on the other hand, produce subtle


Figures 7.7 and 7.8 MVRDV, Glass Farm, 2013. Courtesy of Persbureau van Eijndhoven.

Adam Fure

Aesthetics Postdigital 119

deviations within an other­wise unremarkable façade or form, creating a rift in the background of banal building, which elicits a response. This momentary bond of attention forged when a building emerges from the background of experience echoes Heidegger’s broken-­tool analy­sis, a key reference for Harman. According to Heidegger, when we are utilizing a tool, like a hammer, we ­don’t notice it as something outside of its current purpose (driving a nail, for example), what he calls ready-­to-­hand (or zhuanden). If it breaks, however, it becomes present-­to-­hand (or vorhanden), and we notice it as a ­thing in itself, beyond its use for us. For Heidegger (and Harman), this points to the hidden ontological depths of objects. In the case of H3333333K and Glass Farm, however, and as I’ve stated above in relation to the NA more generally, the pointing is not aimed at occluded ontological depths, but ­toward veiled connectivity. H3333333K’s glitch façade and Glass Farm’s printed façade evidence the naturalization of digital image formats. When digitally native image structures seep into the physical world, a fundamental shift in visual culture has occurred. The ideas presented h ­ ere speak to who we are as designers, what we produce, and how it is received. Our current digital milieu is pervasive, transformational; it calls for new modes of interfacing with computation. The computer is no longer a tool to produce novel forms. And we are no longer pioneers zealously pushing technology forward, but rather critical users designing new means of accessing and visualizing the vari­ous facets of ubiquitous computation. Digital characteristics are no longer limited to screens; they are pres­ent in physical t­ hings. As the computational and concrete merge, designers are presented with an expanded realm of materiality, where every­thing from bits to bricks can be authored. The act of revealing and authoring background computational pro­cesses is an emerging role for architecture to play culturally. Not solely for the sake of re­sis­ tance, but rather as a means of understanding our own visual culture within the context of larger shifts occurring globally. As digital technology spreads farther and fuses deeper into material ­things, it becomes increasingly impor­tant to train the eye to see its effects. If “the digital turn” manifests in big, spectacular buildings, then the postdigital slips inconspicuously into our visual field, seizing a capacity with far-­reaching consequences. Design that explores and exploits ­these subtleties draws attention to this nuanced visual field, while developing applicable disciplinary responses. This pertains to buildings, which begin to manifest immaterial digital qualities in


Adam Fure

physical form, but also images, which circulate ­free and fast online. Postdigital architecture is self-­aware of its double life as physical fact and online fodder. Ubiquitous computation and the Internet are not the death of architecture IRL (in real life), but an opportunity to expand our audience through designs that resonate aesthetically and experientially with lived life in a postdigital age. NOTES

1. ​Samuel Trotman, “Junya Watanabe COMME des GARÇONS MAN × Levi’s,” accessed July 11, 2011, https://­www​.­wgsn​.­com​/­blogs​/­junya​-­watanabe​-­comme​ -­des​-­garcons​-­man​-­x​-­levi%E2%80%99s​/­. 2. ​“The New Aesthetic,” http://­new​-­aesthetic​.­tumblr​.­com​/­archive, accessed May 10, 2016. 3. ​Laird Borrelli-­Persson, “Fall 2000 Ready-­To-­Wear: Junya Watanabe,” accessed February 29, 2000, http://­www​.­vogue​.­com​/­fashion​-­shows​/­f all​-­2000​-­ready​-­to​ -­wear​/­junya​-­watanabe. 4. ​This wave can be attributed, in part, to a lengthy review of a panel Bridle presided over at the popu­lar ­music and technology festival South by Southwest in 2012 by author Bruce Sterling in the popu­lar technology magazine Wired. Bruce Sterling, “An Essay on the New Aesthetic,” accessed April 2, 2012, http://­www​ .­wired​.­com​/­2012​/­04​/­an​-­essay​-­on​-­the​-­new​-­aesthetic​/­. 5. ​“The prefix ‘post’ should not be understood ­here in the same sense as postmodernism and post-­histoire, but, rather, in the sense of post-­punk (a continuation of punk culture in ways which are somehow still punk, yet also beyond punk); post-­ communism (as the ongoing social-­political real­ity in former Eastern Bloc countries); post-­feminism (as a critically revised continuation of feminism, with blurry bound­aries with ‘traditional,’ unprefixed feminism); postcolonialism (see next paragraph); and, to a lesser extent, postapocalyptic (a world in which the apocalypse is not over, but has progressed from a discrete breaking point to an ongoing condition).” Florian Cramer, “What Is ‘Post-­Digital’?,” in Postdigital Aesthetics: Art Computation and Design, ed. David M. Berry and Michael Dieter (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), 14. 6. ​Mario Carpo, The Digital Turn in Architecture 1992–2012 (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley and Sons, 2013). 7. ​David M. Berry, “The Postdigital Constellation,” in Postdigital Aesthetics: Art Computation and Design, ed. David M. Berry and Michael Dieter (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), 45. 8. ​Duncan Geere, “Glitch Art Created by ‘Databending,’ ” accessed August 17, 2012, http://­www​.­wired​.­co​.­uk​/­article​/­glitch​-­art​-­databending.

Aesthetics Postdigital 121 9. ​Artie Vierkant, “The Image Object Post-­Internet,” accessed November 10, 2016, http://­jstchillin​.­org​/­artie​/­pdf​/­The​_­Image​_­Object​_­Post​-­Internet​_­us​.­pdf. 10. ​“In the post-­Internet climate, it is assumed that the work of art lies equally in the version of the object one would encounter at a gallery or museum, the images and other repre­sen­ta­tions disseminated through the Internet and print publications, bootleg images of the object or its repre­sen­ta­tions, and variations on any of ­these as edited and recontextualized by any other author.” Vierkant, “The Image Object Post-­Internet,” 8. 11. ​For example, see the blog “Archive of Affinities” maintained by Andrew Kovacs. Andrew Kovacs, “Archive of Affinities,” accessed December 15, 2016, http://­archiveofaffinities​.­tumblr​.­com​/­. 12. ​­These trends are particularly concentrated in a number of American architecture schools including Michigan, UIC, Penn, Yale, Columbia, and UCLA. For a description of  “screenshot aesthetics,” see Matthew Allen, “Screenshot Aesthetic,” in MOS: Selected Works, by Michael Meredith and Hilary Sample (New York: Prince­ton Architectural Press, 2016), 271–276. 13. ​“Since May 2011 I have been collecting material which points ­towards new ways of seeing the world, an echo of the society, technology, politics and p­ eople that co-­produce them. The New Aesthetic is not a movement, it is not a t­ hing which can be done. It is a series of artifacts of the heterogeneous network, which recognizes differences, the gaps in our distant but overlapping realities.” Accessed December 10, 2016, http://­new​-­aesthetic​.­tumblr​.­com​/­about. 14. ​Curt Cloninger, “Manifesto for a New Aesthetic,” accessed October 3, 2012, http://­www​.­metamute​.­org​/e­ ditorial​/a­ rticles​/m ­ anifesto​-t­ heory​-% ­ E2%80%​98​new​ -­aesthetic%E2%80%99​/­. 15. ​An exemplary proj­ect with a historical/philosophical focus is The Instruments Proj­ect led by Zeynep Çelik Alexander and John J. May. 16. ​Christiane Paul and Malcolm Levy, “Genealogies of the New Aesthetic,” in Postdigital Aesthetics: Art Computation and Design, ed. David M. Berry and Michael Dieter (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), 35. 17. ​Paul and Levy, Genealogies, 36. 18. ​Greg Lynn, Animate Form (New York: Prince­ton Architectural Press, 1999). 19. ​The writings of Stan Allen ­were a major influence in the shift from “object” to “field.” See Stan Allen, “From Object to Field,” AD 67 (May–­June 1997): 24–31. 20. ​See, for example, Mason White, Neeraj Bhatia, and Lola Sheppard, Pamphlet Architecture 30: Coupling: Strategies for Infrastructural Opportunism (New York: Prince­ton Architectural Press, 2011). 21. ​David Ruy, “Returning to (Strange) Objects,” Tarp (Spring 2012): 38–42.


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22. ​Ruy, “Returning to (Strange) Objects,” 39. 23. ​Ruy, 40. 24. ​Ruy, 41. 25. ​Graham Harman, Guerrilla Metaphysics (Chicago: Open Court, 2005), 143. 26. ​Steven Shaviro, The Universe of  ­Things: On Speculative Realism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014), 33. 27. ​Shaviro, Universe of ­Things, 33. 28. ​“In the movement of metamorphosis, the web of meaning is multiplied and extended, echoed and distorted, and propagated to infinity as the ­thing loses itself in the network of its own ramifying traces.” Shaviro, Universe of ­Things, 54. 29. ​Greg Lynn’s Stranded Sears Tower is a proj­ect with complex form that predates his use of the computer. See also Preston Scott Cohen, Contested Symmetries: The Architecture of Preston Scott Cohen (New York: Prince­ton Architectural Press, 2001). 30. ​For an account of this evolution, see the introduction to Hina Jamelle and Ali Rahim’s guest-­edited issue of Architectural Design titled “Elegance.” Hina Jamelle and Ali Rahim, “Elegance in the Age of Digital Technique,” AD 77, no. 1 ( January/ February 2007): 6–9. 31. ​Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001). 32. ​For example, Autodesk Maya has an on/off setting that creates a “physical sun and sky.” 33. ​The origins of trends are difficult to identify, but the drawings of New York–­ based MOS Architects are likely an influential ­factor in this style of drawing. 34. ​Brian Cantwell Smith, On the Origin of Objects (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996). 35. ​Smith, On the Origin of Objects, 66. 36. ​Christian Ulrik Andersen and Søren Pold, “Aesthetics of the Banal—­‘New Aesthetics’ in an Era of Diverted Digital Revolutions,” in Postdigital Aesthetics: Art Computation and Design, ed. David M. Berry and Michael Dieter (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), 279. 37. ​Andersen and Pold, “Aesthetics of the Banal,” 277. 38. ​On May 21, 2005, the author David Foster Wallace delivered the commencement address at Kenyon College. He opened with a philosophical joke: “­There are ­these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, ‘Morning, boys, how’s the ­water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, ‘What the hell is ­water?’ ”

Aesthetics Postdigital 123 39. ​Ian Bogost, Alien Phenomenology or What It’s Like to Be a ­Thing (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012), 23. 40. ​Graham Harman, The Qua­dru­ple Object (Winchester, UK: Zero Books, 2010), 7–19. 41. ​Levi Bryant, The Democracy of Objects (Ann Arbor, MI: Open Humanities, 2011), 208. 42. ​Bill Brown, ed., ­Things (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004). 43. ​Bruno Latour, “Why Critique Has Run Out of Steam: From ­Matters of Fact to ­Matters of Concern,” in ­Things, ed. Bill Brown (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 151–173. 44. ​In his essay on “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Walter Benjamin observed that “Architecture has always represented the prototype of a work of art the reception of which is consummated by a collectivity in a state of distraction.  … Architecture [is] appropriated in a twofold manner: by use and by perception, or rather, by touch and sight. Such appropriation cannot be understood in terms of the attentive concentration of a tourist before a famous building.  … [Buildings are appropriated] not so much by attention as by habit.” Walter Benjamin, Illuminations (Berlin: Schocken Books, 1969), 217–251. 45. ​Sophie Weiner, “­These Artists Turned a Glitch into a Building,” accessed November 20, 2016, http://­www​.­hopesandfears​.­com​/­hopes​/­city​/­architecture​ /216537-­interview-­bitnik-­glitch-­façade. 46. ​This digital collage was developed in collaboration with artist Frank van der Salm. BIBLIOGRAPHY

Allen, Matthew. “Screenshot Aesthetic.” In MOS: Selected Works, edited by Michael Meredith and Hilary Sample, 271–276. New York: Prince­ton Architectural Press, 2016. Allen, Stan. “From Object to Field.” AD 67 (May–­June 1997): 24–31. Andersen, Christian Ulrik, and Søren Pold. “Aesthetics of the Banal—­‘New Aesthetics’ in an Era of Diverted Digital Revolutions.” In Postdigital Aesthetics: Art Computation and Design, edited by David M. Berry and Michael Dieter, 271–288. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” In Illuminations, by Walter Benjamin. Berlin: Schocken Books, 1969. Berry, David M. “The Postdigital Constellation.” In Postdigital Aesthetics: Art Computation and Design, edited by David M. Berry and Michael Dieter, 44–57. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.


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Bogost, Ian. Alien Phenomenology or What It’s Like to Be a ­Thing. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012. Borrelli-­Persson, Laird. “Fall 2000 Ready-­To-­Wear: Junya Watanabe.” Accessed February 29, 2000. http://­www​.­vogue​.­com​/­fashion​-­shows​/­fall​-­2000​-­ready​-­to​ -­wear​/­junya​-­watanabe. Bridle, James. “The New Aesthetic.” Accessed May  10, 2016. http://­new​ -­aesthetic​.­tumblr​.­com​/­archive. Brown, Bill. ­Things. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004. Bryant, Levi. The Democracy of Objects. Ann Arbor, MI: Open Humanities, 2011. Carpo, Mario. The Digital Turn in Architecture 1992–2012. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley and Sons, 2013. Cloninger, Curt. “Manifesto for a New Aesthetic.” Accessed October 3, 2012. http://­www​.­metamute​.­org​/­editorial​/­articles​/­manifesto​-­theory​-­%E2%80%98new​ -­aesthetic%E2%80%99​/­. Cohen, Preston Scott. Contested Symmetries: The Architecture of Preston Scott Cohen. New York: Prince­ton Architectural Press, 2001. Cramer, Florian. “What Is ‘Post-­Digital’?” In Postdigital Aesthetics: Art Computation and Design, edited by David M. Berry and Michael Dieter, 12–26. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. Geere, Duncan. “Glitch Art Created by ‘Databending.’ ” Accessed August 17, 2012. http://­www​.­wired​.­co​.­uk​/­article​/­glitch​-­art​-­databending. Harman, Graham. Guerrilla Metaphysics. Chicago: Open Court, 2005. Harman, Graham. The Qua­dru­ple Object. Winchester, UK: Zero Books, 2010. Jamelle, Hina, and Ali Rahim. “Elegance in the Age of Digital Technique” AD 77, no. 1 ( January/February 2007): 6–9. Kovacs, Andrew. “Archive of Affinities.” Accessed November 10, 2016. http://­ archiveofaffinities​.­tumblr​.­com​/­. Latour, Bruno. “Why Critique Has Run Out of Steam: From ­Matters of Fact to ­Matters of Concern.” In ­Things, edited by Bill Brown, 151–173. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004. Lynn, Greg. Animate Form. New York: Prince­ton Architectural Press, 1999. Manovich, Lev. The Language of New Media. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001. Paul, Christiane, and Malcolm Levy. “Genealogies of the New Aesthetic.” In Postdigital Aesthetics: Art Computation and Design, edited by David  M. Berry and Michael Dieter, 27–43. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. Ruy, David. “Returning to (Strange) Objects.” Tarp, Spring 2012, 38–42.

Aesthetics Postdigital 125 Shaviro, Steven. The Universe of  ­Things: On Speculative Realism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014. Smith, Brian Cantwell. On the Origin of Objects. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996. Sterling, Bruce. “An Essay on the New Aesthetic.” Accessed April 2, 2012. http://­ www​.­wired​.­com​/­2012​/­04​/­an​-­essay​-­on​-­the​-­new​-­aesthetic​/­. Trotman, Samuel. “Junya Watanabe COMME des GARÇONS MAN x Levi’s.” Accessed July  11, 2011. https://­w ww​.­w gsn​.­c om​/­blogs​/­j unya​-­watanabe​ -­comme​-­des​-­garcons​-­man​-­x​-­levi%E2%80%99s​/­. Vierkant, Artie. “The Image Object Post-­Internet.” Accessed November 10, 2016. http://­jstchillin​.­org​/­artie​/­pdf​/­The​_­Image​_­Object​_­Post​-­Internet​_­us​.­pdf. Weiner, Sophie. “­These Artists Turned a Glitch into a Building.” Accessed November 20, 2016. http://­www​.­hopesandfears​.­com​/­hopes​/­city/architecture​/216537 -­interview-­bitnik-­glitch-­façade. White, Mason, Neeraj Bhatia, and Lola Sheppard. Pamphlet Architecture 30: Coupling: Strategies for Infrastructural Opportunism. New York: Prince­ton Architectural Press, 2011.


Abstraction occupies a problematic location within art over the past ­century. It is both one of the key attributes used to describe the difference between modern art and the artistic endeavors that preceded it, and at the same time it is used as a scapegoat for the failures of the same art. For each apologist that has argued the values of abstraction, ­there is an equivalent attack leveled against it. This stalemate is in large part due to the multiple definitions and manifestations that abstraction has put forward over the past ­century. In an initial attempt to define such a contentious concept, we could begin with the following associations: abstraction is the reduction ­toward an essence, the transcendence of appearances ­toward an under­lying idea, the rejection of visual similitude between the art form and the way in which the world visually appears, the objective logic of mathe­matics, the autonomy of a work of art from its social and material contingencies … the list could go on. Both sides of the abstraction debate would prob­ably agree to the tone and implications of t­ hese definitions, disagreeing only in their valuation. One side sees t­ hese qualities as desirable; abstraction pulls art out of trivial historical styles dominated by academies and social hierarchy, it provides art with contact to more eternal concepts, it gives art an ability to combat the market forces of kitsch commodities and situates art in a progressive position at the forefront of culture. The other side of the argument views the same qualities as suspect. Their objections would be as follows: abstraction places art on an elitist formal pedestal offering ­little regarding the social and po­liti­cal trou­bles of the modern world, it naively claims a separation from material forces, it is founded on quasimystical gibberish, and it is just as easily commoditized, if not more so due to the ever-­accelerating economies of exchange. If we understand the sense in


Michael Young

both sides, it would seem that abstraction is a rather confused battleground, one perhaps ready to be abandoned in taking up more con­temporary discussions. Yet, abstraction refuses to go away. In many ways, abstraction is taking on several strange new aspects in much con­temporary art. In what follows, I ­will argue that many of ­these disagreements and confusions surrounding discussions of abstraction in relation to the arts occur due to two reasons. First, the meaning of abstraction is dif­fer­ent for ethics, epistemology, and aesthetics. The second reason follows from the first: aesthetics is typically held in a secondary position, dependent on ethics and epistemology for justification. In most instances, the definitions of abstraction within ethics and epistemology are imported into aesthetics as the substance of an aesthetic position. This drift of meaning from one set of inquiry into another creates both confusion regarding what abstraction exactly entails and reinforces doubt regarding the legitimacy of aesthetics as an in­de­pen­dent mode of engaging the world. Our first task ­will be to untangle aesthetics from its dependence on ethics and epistemology and secondly to show how abstraction plays very dif­fer­ent roles in each of the three philosophical modes, and through this attempt to develop a more robust description of how abstraction operates within aesthetics. To guide the following essay, the arguments of several con­temporary thinkers ­will be employed, specifically the theories associated with Speculative Realism and the relations between politics and aesthetics as put forward by Jacques Rancière. In Rancière’s argument, abstraction in art is a descendent of the mid-­nineteenth-­century movement known as Realism. It may at first sound odd to pair what would appear to be antithetical concepts, but one of the in­ter­est­ing outcomes of exploring the relation between abstraction and aesthetics is that abstraction and realism are revealed to not be the dialectical enemies they are commonly assumed to be, but to be constantly playing with each other in a state of exchange. ETHICS, EPISTEMOLOGY, AESTHETICS

The terms ethics, epistemology, and aesthetics describe three dif­fer­ent philosophical modes of relating to the world. The most common definitions would be something akin to the following: Ethics mediates relations by an appeal to a higher ideal of which specific physical instances are but contingent manifestations. It is concerned with general ideas beyond their

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material instantiation, for example, the ideals of beauty, truth, and virtue found in the dialogues of Plato. Ethics revolves around how ­these ideals affect ­human be­hav­ior, the questions of morality. Epistemology is concerned with knowledge, how we know what we know, how this is substantiated, and how this is communicated. Since the Enlightenment, epistemology has been primarily focused on cognitive acts and the logical pro­cesses through which we justify beliefs to become verified truth. With Immanuel Kant, aesthetics was explained as the ability to form judgments regarding sensory qualities, with special attention to the ideas of subjective taste and disinterested plea­sure.1 Aesthetics as used in this essay partly reflects Kant’s definition, but owes more to Jacques Rancière’s resuscitation and revaluation of the term Aisthesis. In his definition, aesthetics refers to the manner in which qualitative information regarding the world is made sensible, distributed to our sensory capacities.2 ­There are several overlapping concerns ­here between ­these three philosophical modes. They all grapple with judgment and with how one may convey t­ hese observations to o ­ thers (other­wise known as the prob­lem of repre­sen­ta­tion). It is not an overstatement to say that in the past two centuries aesthetics has suffered greatly in relation to the other two. Both ethics and epistemology are seen as more solid philosophical foundations; aesthetics is placed in a secondary, derivative position. Ethics-­based arguments state that if an artwork is “true” to its concept, function, and idea, a “good” aesthetic ­will be an automatic result. Ethics posits a direct correspondence between truth and beauty. Epistemologically, if an artwork stems from the knowledge of its formal composition, its narrative content, and its so­cio­log­i­cal context, the aesthetic ­will be successful within its genre. Epistemology is not concerned with the transcendental truth value of art; it accepts the simulations of art as long as cultural knowledge is constructed and conveyed through the artwork. In both of t­ hese accounts, aesthetics is justified by an appeal to other philosophical modes. The reasons for this are multiple, but ­there are recurring motifs. One is that aesthetic judgments are too subjective; they rely too much on specific experiences as opposed to general concepts. Another common belief is that aesthetic judgments are confused, hence the difficulty in explaining the convictions of an observation in clear, precise language. The third prevalent fear is that aesthetics are ultimately a mask for the real under­lying social and po­liti­cal forces instrumental in the production of culture. The methods of critical theory,


Michael Young

be they ethically or epistemologically based, are to uncover t­hese hidden forces and make the observer aware of what lies beneath the seduction of beauty. The interpretations that we may take from t­hese common condemnations of aesthetics are telling of a certain paranoia in modern thought. Aesthetics cannot be trusted. If left alone, aesthetics is ­either unethical or conceals knowledge. Both conclusions leave aesthetics in a very tenuous position. ­Toward the end of the previous c­ entury and the start of the current one, ­there have been several attempts to revamp aesthetics. ­These come from phi­los­o­phers and theorists as varied as Dave Hickey, Steven Shaviro, Elaine Scarry, Jacques Rancière, and Graham Harman. Each of t­ hese thinkers along with several ­others have argued for the in­de­pen­dence of aesthetics as a mode of relation in the world. They have argued for the “vernacular of beauty” outside of the institutions that mystify through formal interpretation (Hickey).3 They have argued that aesthetics should not be reduced to ethical beliefs or knowledge systems of abstract generalizations (Shaviro).4 They have argued that aesthetics can lead to the desire for ethical be­hav­ior as opposed to ethics as an alibi (Scarry).5 They have argued that aesthetics triggers the curiosity that lays the foundation for knowledge structures (Scarry).6 They have argued that aesthetics can engender po­liti­ cal transformation through its own operations (Rancière).7 And in one case, t­ here is an argument that aesthetics can be considered “first philosophy,” a mode of relation between ­things that comes prior to all other philosophical speculation (Harman).8 If we redefine the three philosophical modes as describing vari­ous relations between objects, without privileging the human/world relation, we begin to see some clear differences. Ethics describes the relations between objects as mediated by a transcendental concept. Epistemology describes the relations between objects by breaking down what is empirically available into smaller simpler parts and generalizing their structural relationships. Aesthetics describes the relations between objects by engaging directly with the qualities an object makes available. Abstraction is a crucial component of both ethics and epistemology. Ethics abstracts t­ oward a higher transcendence; objects are too s­ imple. Epistemology abstracts t­oward simpler ele­ments; objects are too complex. We can identify ­here several aspects noted previously regarding common notions of abstraction. When abstraction is defined as the transcendence of

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the material realm t­oward one of spirit, or ideal truth, we have an ethical explanation. When abstraction is defined as the breaking down of phenomena into repeatable general patterns, we have an epistemological explanation. It would seem that t­ here is no place for abstraction in a direct aesthetic encounter. Aesthetics attempts to hold the concrete real­ity of an artwork in focus without internalizing it up into pure idea or analyzing it down ­toward systemic knowledge. From an aesthetic position, t­ here should be no abstract art, only concrete art.9 ­These observations suggest that we may have to find another way of describing abstraction in aesthetics, or cede the territory of abstraction entirely to the other two philosophical investigations. AESTHETICS AS FIRST PHILOSOPHY

Aesthetics as first philosophy sounds like a stretch. I­ sn’t aesthetics a branch of philosophy, one that at its best is explained by other more impor­tant philosophical concepts such as metaphysics, ontology, and, as we have seen already, epistemology and ethics? How is it that a phi­los­o­pher could possibly suggest that aesthetics comes prior to ­these other philosophical concerns? Yet this is exactly what Graham Harman’s object-­oriented philosophy proposes. As extreme as this may sound, on second glance the idea may not be so surprising. If metaphysics deals with first princi­ples, it derives ­these princi­ ples from observations of real­ity. The initial way any object relates to another is through the manner that it senses the other. Harman describes this initial sensual relation as aesthetic. Similarly, if ontology addresses what does and does not exist, aesthetics initiates this question. And to paraphrase Elaine Scarry, beauty can instigate the search for knowledge and the desire to be just. It is aesthetics that can lead ­toward epistemology and ethics. Beauty produces the desire for truth, it in itself may or may not be “true,” but that is beside the point, for the evaluation of truth is not a fundamental aesthetic criteria.10 In order to address the differences that are suggested by “aesthetics as first philosophy” from other philosophical stances, it ­will be necessary to explicate some of the key ideas in Harman’s argument. Harman posits that in attempting to consider the qualities of an object, we should avoid what he calls undermining and “overmining.”11 Undermining attempts to explain an object by breaking it down into smaller pieces and producing


Michael Young

a general system that explains the relations of the smaller parts. This is a classic tactic of epistemology. The prob­lem that Harman sees with undermining is that although it may produce knowledge regarding the relations of smaller components, in ­doing so, the initial object has dis­appeared. This reduction to more base ele­ments can continue in ever-­diminishing smaller and smaller levels, each time further from the consideration of the initial object. The other tactic is what Harman calls “overmining.” In this pro­cess, the object is too specific to be real; instead it is only internal intuitive ideas that are real. Ethics is an example of “overmining,” for it argues that material existences in the world are not as real as the eternal transcendent ideas that structure our categories of access to the world.12 The term that best describes the close attention to an object is aesthetics. Aesthetics attempts to engage with the entire range of qualities that an object pres­ents to an observer, or for that m ­ atter that any object pres­ents to any other object. To resist undermining and “overmining” is to privilege aesthetics as the first mode of relation between ­things. It is of tantamount importance to state h ­ ere that t­ hese aesthetic relations do not exhaust the object. ­There is always something that withdraws from our access. Harman uses the example of fire burning cotton.13 The fire and the cotton are in a relation with qualities of each other dif­fer­ent from our ­human sensory relation to ­either fire or cotton. We cannot know their relations, but it does not mean that they are not real, nor does it mean that the fire/ cotton relation is more real than our own qualitative experience of the pair. Aesthetics does not exhaust real­ity; it is an introduction. In a way, Harman thus proposes a method for aesthetic attention. Do not analyze the object away; pay attention to its qualities. Do not ascend into your subjective ideals; the object is ­really t­ here and it has qualities that you ­will never have access to. Elaine Scarry pres­ents several wonderful remarks on beauty that can serve as an addendum to Harman’s proposition. For Scarry, beauty triggers the desire to reproduce the beautiful object.14 This could mean copying it through drawing or photography, but it initially means that we look at it longer, for we ­don’t want it to go away. Beauty thus elongates and intensifies attention. A second aspect of beauty is what Scarry calls lateral displacement.15 Beauty makes us aware that t­here are other ­things beside ourselves; we are displaced from the center of the production of the world; we step outside of ourselves for a moment. We become attentive objects amongst other attentive objects.

The Aesthetics of Abstraction 133 ABSTRACTION AND ALLUSION

I want to return now to the question of abstraction. It would seem at first that abstraction would have no role in a philosophy that resists the reduction implied by undermining and the transcendence implied by “overmining.” But this is not necessarily the case. Although Harman does not discuss abstraction directly in this manner, I speculate that t­here is an in­ter­est­ing aspect of aesthetic abstraction that works well with the discussions of object-­oriented philosophy. First though, let us try to clarify what aesthetic abstraction might be that is dif­fer­ent from the definitions tied to epistemology and ethics. In his essay “Abstraction with and without Modernism,” Stefan Heidenreich defines abstraction in art as having four qualities. First, abstraction is to subtract or take away; it has a negative relationship to something bigger. Second, something had to previously exist—­abstraction is anterior to a pre­ce­dent. Third, abstraction is a refinement that subtracts the super­ fluous and consolidates the essential, thus a moral dimension. Fourth, abstraction is a pro­cess, a movement, not a trait or a style.16 ­These four attributes of abstraction as described by Heidenreich are well stated and most likely would be generally accepted. What I w ­ ill propose though is that t­hese are exactly what we need to reject when attempting to describe the aesthetics of abstraction. I ­will address them point by point. … abstraction is to subtract or take away. … Abstraction is not necessarily a smaller or simpler instance of a more complex real­ity. This is an epistemological use of abstraction. Abstraction in aesthetics may mean to take something away, but it also may mean adding something as well. To draw a figure through its bounding contour is an abstraction produced by adding lines that are not ­there to begin with. The addition of ­these lines intensifies attention ­toward the bounding shape of a figure. Instead of subtraction, abstraction in aesthetics behaves almost as a substitution.17 Abstraction can shift relations by crossing aspects between mediums. The linear contour is a mode of abstraction within drawing translated into painting. Collage is another example where the medium bash of material fragments aggregates into the realm of painting. Kurt Schwitters appropriates fragments of paper decontextualized from their original source in order to combine them as if they ­were paint­erly strokes. A painter such as Gerhard Richter substitutes the abstract smear of pigment to estrange the


Michael Young

medium of photography by resembling photo blur; paint does not blur, lenses blur. All of t­hese substitutions involve an abstraction of aspects from one medium and a reinsertion into that of another. This is a substitution, a genre hybrid producing tensions within the artwork, not a subtraction to a more essential purity. … abstraction is anterior to a pre­ce­dent. … This is an attempt to ground abstraction as a nonutopian act that builds from a pre­ce­dent. It is an attempt to construct a knowledge system for abstraction. But, the aesthetics of abstraction does not require a legible pre­ce­dent. What it requires is a background. Though this does imply that it comes ­after something, the legibility of the sequence is not the impor­tant aspect. One does not need to see the previous stage next to a current stage to have the aesthetic affect. The explanation of abstraction as a procedural transformation dates back at least to how Theo van Doesburg famously explained abstract art in his Princi­ ples of Neo-­Plastic Art.18 A step-­by-­step increase in abstraction extracted from a visually legible figure ­toward pure two-­dimensional geometric form and color. But t­ hese steps are an attempt to explain a system, to pres­ent a logic, an epistemology for abstraction. Aesthetic abstraction does not need the systemic logic of transformation; it instead estranges a relation with an existing background, be it past, con­temporary, or f­ uture. The aesthetics of abstraction disrupt the temporal flow, changing the manner in which one experiences the background. For instance, Robert Irwin’s insertion at the Whitney in 1977 titled Scrim Veil-­Black Rectangle-­Natural Light completely transforms the aesthetics of an existing space with the most minimal of abstract interventions. Irwin’s installation produces a “new” Whitney museum. … abstraction … consolidates the essential, thus a moral dimension. … To describe abstraction as essential and moral is clearly an ethical argument. Abstraction in aesthetics does not reveal an essence; it is amoral. It does so not by removing the superfluous, but by transforming specific qualities of an object. This is often through allusion to qualities that do not typically belong to the object in question. This allusion Harman describes as a tension between a real object and its sensuous qualities.19 Something is ruptured, or altered, or substituted, and allusions begin to intensify engagement rearranging sensible information. This aspect of abstraction is far from a moral essentialism. For Rancière, aesthetics alters what a community believes can be said through the ways in which real­ity can appear. This

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re­distribution can establish ethical be­hav­ior, but in the aesthetic moment, ­there is no clear ethical stance regarding truth, morality, use, or tradition. … abstraction is a pro­cess, a movement, not a trait or a style. … Abstraction can be a pro­cess, and I agree with Heidenreich that it is not a style locked into a specific historical moment. But, the aesthetics of abstraction do not require a pro­cess to be legible, reenacted, rehearsed. The pro­cess necessary in the aesthetics of abstraction is the length and intensity of attention that the abstraction triggers for aesthetic engagement. In this manner it is a pro­ cess as it extends into the duration of sensation. But, the aesthetic qualities of abstraction are not procedural, or revelatory of a hidden method. In order to explain this a bit further, we ­will look to the origins of “defamiliarization” as an aesthetic idea in early twentieth-­century Rus­sian Formalism. The term “defamiliarization” is first put to use as an aesthetic theory by Viktor Shklovsky in the 1917 essay translated into En­glish as ­either “Art as Technique” or “Art as Device.”20 In this argument, Shklovsky suggests that art slows down, elongates, and intensifies attention. This elongation is the aesthetic experience itself. “And so, in order to return sensation to our limbs, in order to make us feel objects, to make a stone feel stony, man has been given the tool of art.  … By ‘estranging’ objects and complicating form, the device of art has a purpose all its own and o ­ ught to be extended to the fullest.”21 The devices deployed by an artist to produce this effect are likened to a “defamiliarization” or “estrangement” of an assumed familiar real­ity. Although Shklovsky does not use the term “abstraction,” each of the devices he identifies operates through an abstract cut into the familiar to expose the artificiality of the construct. It is h ­ ere that we may speak of the double nature of abstraction in aesthetics. Aesthetic abstraction is not only an intervention, not only an act; it is also the quality of the revealed construct. For example, Shklovsky identifies such literary devices as the shifting of point of view from the ­human to the animal and the description of an event that focuses only on affects while refusing to name the action.22 ­These techniques involve a high degree of abstraction in writing as well as in reading. With familiarity, language becomes naturalized. When fluent, we read through language ­toward content, forgetting exactly how abstract language actually is. Defamiliarization cracks this smooth legibility and focuses attention onto the abstraction of the entire construct. It is impor­ tant to reiterate that this is an aesthetic experience. Shklovsky is drifting aspects of poetry, for instance the “roughing up” of language, t­ oward prose.


Michael Young

Poetry allows the reader to hear a word that is familiar to them in a new way. T ­ hese allusions come from a blockage of smooth, seamless communication. This is dif­fer­ent than the techniques of critical awareness in much con­temporary art criticism. Criticality seeks to make the viewer/reader aware of hidden structures and assumptions. It seeks to make ­these under­lying forces known, and by raising awareness create po­liti­cal change. Defamiliarization and estrangement in aesthetics do not provide new knowledge; they may lead to the desire to know, but in the moment of engagement, what is actually operative could be called a “re­distribution of the sensible.” “THE RE­DISTRIBUTION OF THE SENSIBLE”

The framework that has been structuring this essay through the distinctions between ethics, epistemology, and aesthetics owes a ­great deal to the tripartite division that Jacques Rancière lays out regarding the relation between social structures and sensible information. At the heart of Rancière’s argument is that aesthetics redistributes sensible information in manners that allow new constituencies to form; in other words, po­liti­cal transformations are a result of aesthetics.23 He identifies three major categories for the relations between society and art. The first is the regime of the Ethical. This can be seen in philosophical stances ­toward art such as one presented in Plato’s Republic where art is condemned for producing illusions, confusing real­ity and image. True ideas are transcendental and what we can sense of them in our embodied experiences is only a copy. Art that reproduces the sensory is thus further removed, a copy of a copy. The only good art is an ethical art, an art that is built out of true craft practices in relation to function and tradition.24 The second regime is that of the Poetic or Repre­sen­ta­tional. This regime does away with the moral and ethical strictures, instead claiming that art operates through a knowable set of conventions to deliver poetic content. This regime is by and large an epistemological one. It is built out of the philosophy of Aristotle and finds its major examples from the fifteenth-­century Italian Re­nais­sance to the Beaux-­Arts Academies of the nineteenth ­century. Importance is placed on the hierarchy of genre conventions and the rules that structure the production and interpretation of the artwork. Knowledge is necessary to both understand compositional procedures, and to interpret the narrative content extracted from sanctioned sources such as Classical my­thol­ogy or

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Biblical allegories.25 The third category is the regime of Aesthetics. Rancière identifies this as emerging in the nineteenth c­ entury through Realism in lit­er­a­ture and painting. What changes h ­ ere is a new attention to the everyday, the vulgar, the quotidian. ­There are direct attacks on the institutionally established genres of art. T ­ here is a focus on descriptive detail rather than analogical symbolism or narrative interpretation. The Aesthetic regime puts into question what is art and how can it be identified?26 ­There are several reasons for the arrival of the Aesthetic regime during the nineteenth ­century. One is that art was being made for a rising, newly educated public (commonly labeled as the bourgeoisie), not for the anointed aristocracy. In Rancière’s argument, aesthetics was part of what allowed this new constituency to identify itself and po­liti­cally collect. Art was being produced for new institutions of public display, new cultural archives. The museum redistributed the fragments of other eras and cultures into a single space of display. As Rancière notes, this gathering of collected artifacts became decontextualized fragments, leading to alternate interpretations of the historical development of art.27 Art is no longer conceived of as a gradual evolution modeled on organic growth and decay, but instead was beginning to be understood as a rec­ord of ruptures and transformations, tensions produced through simultaneous contradictory impulses. Aesthetics became the manner in which one could begin to describe ­these tensions between real­ity and its repre­sen­ta­tion. The advent of Realism was not a more “real”-­looking painting or a more “real”-­sounding lit­er­a­ture, but instead a loosening of acceptable content with an emphasis on the manner in which an art object challenged conventions of technique and display. The practice of art production was no longer one established through a patron commissioning a craftsman, but instead a relation between an artistic sensibility and the sensibility of a largely anonymous public.28 This shift meant that the knowledge of the public could not be assumed, and instead the art object needed to be able to exist as its own autonomous object. ­These objects could then shift aesthetic conditions by presenting alternative sets of associations and affective states. Fredric Jameson in a recent book The Antimonies of Realism effectively argues that Realism produced a ­whole new set of emotional states through the descriptive details of bodily affects.29 ­These emotional states ­were outside defined categories, and thus provided an affective realm for a developing audience more in line with the complexities and ambiguities of living in a rapidly transforming industrial society.


Michael Young

Part of Rancière’s argument is to show that “modern” art is not a twentieth-­century art initiated with abstraction, but that abstraction in art was made pos­si­ble ­because of the aesthetic transformations of the ­middle of the nineteenth c­ entury. An artist must be f­ree to paint any subject before they may paint a black square.30 Early twentieth-­century abstraction is also the heir to Realism’s efforts to disturb assumptions of how real­ity is mediated through art. Kandinsky, Mondrian, and Malevich ­were all convinced that they ­were creating artwork that allowed access to a true real­ity, a deeper real­ity. They may have seen this as leading t­oward a higher truth, but their art initiates this through an aesthetic provocation, one involving abstraction. Rancière brings to light the autonomy of aesthetics from the ethical and the epistemological. Aesthetics does not operate through a repre­sen­ta­tion of truth, nor does it operate by articulating a knowledge system. Aesthetics operates through tensions between the sensory and the intelligible, one that cannot be properly conceptualized prior to the redistributing break. This is true even though ­these re­distributions spark theoretical arguments regarding the importance of the transformation, and even if they lead to ethical stances. T ­ hese are aspects of the po­liti­cal that emerge from the aesthetic. Although Rancière is arguing that abstraction in art is not the primary issue, when we look at the examples he identifies, we find a number of abstractions at work. Decontextualization, for example, is a very abstract operation. To cut a fragment from one location and move it to another creates a disjunction from the conditions contingent for its original creation. This rupture allows the object to float f­ ree and enter into new relations, produce new allusions. It is well documented that two of the most impor­tant moments for twentieth-­century abstraction, the collage and the readymade, require exactly this pretense of decontextualization for recombination. And, to emphasize the collusion described in this section further, both the collage and the readymade are not only abstract in their contextual rupture, but are also seen as foundational moments of a new attitude ­toward realism in twentieth-­century art. CRITICAL AWARENESS AND AESTHETIC ABSTRACTION

The difference between raising critical awareness through revealing hidden structures and the aesthetics of estrangement is crucial and easily confused, so let us take a moment to untangle them. Both approaches use abstraction,

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but in radically dif­fer­ent ways. Critical theory primarily seeks to expose the assumptions that operate within a given system of beliefs and their repre­sen­ ta­tion. It seeks to make one aware of the power relations ­behind appearances and expose the biases that often go unnoticed. The goal is an increase in knowledge, and from this, an emancipation from the economic, po­liti­cal, and social constraints that are typically concealed. As discussed previously, abstraction plays a crucial role in the construction of epistemological systems of critical awareness. Epistemological abstraction allows connections to be drawn, networks of relations to be articulated, and lineages of influence to be exposed. But, t­hese abstractions are dif­fer­ent in kind from abstraction as used in aesthetics. An aesthetic abstraction does not seek to produce knowledge. Its sole effect is to destabilize and redistribute sensible information. You see differently, you feel differently. This is prior to any cognitive understanding of the affect being produced. This does not make aesthetic abstractions anti-­intellectual (it is not a primitive regression). Aesthetic abstractions are full of allure as Graham Harman would describe the effect.31 Something is ­there and not t­here at the same time. Aesthetics grapples with this paradox. Attention is intensified, but not legitimized by exposing the under­ lying power structures operating in a cap­i­tal­ist society. The intensification is ­toward the qualities of the object; critical awareness is secondary. Another way to say this is the difference between close reading and close attention. Abstraction within epistemology offers a deeper level of understanding motivations and structural ties; it replaces one reading with multiple ­others. Abstraction within aesthetics disturbs the assumptions of the background without immediately filling them with another level of content. Instead, it intensifies or elongates the attention paid to the object or event and, in ­doing so, makes one doubt initial assumptions without offering an answer. AUERBACH/DEMAND/BRETHOUWER

Abstraction is active in many guises in con­temporary art, and it does not need to look like geometric art, abstract expressionism, minimalism, color-­ field painting, or conceptual art. I would like to briefly outline three instances where an aesthetics of abstraction is at work in con­temporary practice. Tauba Auerbach produces several dif­fer­ent types of work that are difficult to categorize within a single medium. In a recent exhibition, the


Michael Young

three-­dimensional work appears as abstract geometric sculptures. When displayed in conjunction with the paintings in this exhibition, t­hese objects take on the allusion of tools used for producing the paintings through an uncanny similarity between the painted marks and the form of the sculptural objects.32 At this moment, the abstraction of the sculpture and the abstraction of the paintings are altered into a direct realism of tools leaving traces in ­matter, a pure indexical mark. In a dif­fer­ent series titled Folds (2012) (see figure 8.1), work that is initially understood as painting has a feeling of being somewhere between sculpture and photography. This series consists of what appears to be highly three-­dimensional,

Figure 8.1 Tauba Auerbach, Untitled (Fold), 2012, Acrylic on canvas/wooden stretcher, 60 × 45 inches, 152.4 × 114.3 cm. © Tauba Auerbach. Courtesy of Paula Cooper Gallery, New York.

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folded, painted surfaces. What Auerbach has done is folded canvas, spray-­ painted the folds with a diachronic paint in dif­fer­ent orientations, and then stretched the folded canvas onto painting frames. In the end they sit perfectly flat, yet they have a trompe l’iole effect of a thick dimensionality, a trompe l’iole without the technical virtuosity usually associated with still-­ life realism. ­These paintings appear si­mul­ta­neously as high abstraction in the vein of Frank Stella’s banded paintings of the late 1950s and as extreme realism in relation to the suggested depth and raw materiality. This is all even stranger in that, on first approaching the paintings, they appear as photo­graphs. The observer has to get extremely close to the canvas, to the raw materiality to believe that they are actually paintings. This close attention is created by the inability to determine if the objects are presenting an aesthetics of abstraction or realism. Thomas Demand is known for his photo­graphs of models made from paper (see figure 8.2). The paper models are made as exact replicas of photo­graphs of real-­world environments. The models are then photographed from exactly the same ­angle as the original photo­graph. What results is a very strange realism, for the photos are real documentary photos of real environments; they just happen to be real paper environments, not

Figure 8.2 Thomas Demand, Copyshop, 1999, C-­Print/Perspex, 183.5 × 300 cm. © 2018 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-­Kunst, Bonn.


Michael Young

the spaces they seem at first to pres­ent. What is necessary for the uncanny affect produced in Demand’s work can be called a form of abstraction. This is produced by the loss of detail at a certain level, by the tightness in the range of materiality, a muted luminous reflectivity, or the reveal at the edge of surface construction. All ­these effects are the result of the literal limits of the ­actual material, paper. But, the aesthetic effect is to make the “real” spaces start to look a l­ittle fake, to look abstract. This is a tension between real­ity and repre­sen­ta­tion, a tension where the observer is judging abstraction solely on the effects of real material be­hav­ior. It should be clear how odd it is that the sensorial qualities of a real material objectively documented through photography are the aesthetic trigger ­toward abstraction. Harmen Brethouwer is in the midst of an ongoing proj­ect, where he is interacting with dif­fer­ent modes of cultural production, other­wise known as art (see figure 8.3). He took the radical step to “custom design” his own formats for the artwork, one two dimensional and one spatial. The two forms, a square panel and a cone-­shaped object, never change, only the articulation and the scenario. The series that I would like to discuss ­here belongs to the wall-­hung squares. In this series, each panel is painted as a dif­fer­ent stone texture. This is the traditional art of marbling, of painting a wall to look like a material it is not. On first glance, ­these look like stone samples, like real material. But, on closer inspection, they are revealed to be painted. Brethouwer has hired several of the world’s top faux-­marble paint­ers and given them a square panel upon which to improvise their material composition. This improvisation is key, for to master the imitation of a specific species of stone grain, it is not enough to copy a real example, for the painter must have the skill to cover any changing dimension of wall. This means that the painter must abstractly construct an image that resembles the be­hav­ior of stone grain. With Brethouwer’s panels, the aesthetic elongation of attention produces a strange inversion, for many of ­these fragments start to not resemble material so much as they resemble painting, that is they resemble abstract expressionism.33 Now the works are no longer fake stone, they are fake abstract paintings, or as Brethouwer titled the show in which they ­were displayed, False Abstracts. Furthermore, this raises the in­ter­est­ing question: what exactly is false about ­these abstract works in the new context of Brethouwer’s proj­ect? The abstraction should lie in the repetition of the overall form,

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Figure 8.3 Harmen Brethouwer with Michael van de Laar, Breche Violet, 2008, oil on mdf, 50 × 50 cm. Courtesy of Gallery Hidde van Seggelen.

yet ­here it lies within the articulation of the surface; it lies at the moment that one begins to doubt the stoniness of the paint. Each of ­these artists in very dif­fer­ent ways provokes an estrangement through aesthetic propositions. Each of them in a dif­fer­ent way uses abstraction as an aesthetic device. But, interestingly, it is not the look of abstraction that is the immediate aesthetic engagement. All three artists actually produce work that initially evokes realism, and then through abstraction, produces a doubt regarding the real­ity of what you are


Michael Young

perceiving. Abstraction does not necessitate a style of geometric form; it does not require a reduction to essences, even though it always works within a medium; it is not medium specific; it is more often medium promiscuous. Many of the ­things we have been told about abstraction in art over the twentieth ­century are true, but only in relation to the ethical and epistemological modes of inquiry. It is time to pay closer attention to how abstraction has been operating within aesthetics in­de­pen­dent from other philosophical arguments that have served as the basis for so many interpretations of abstraction in art. ABSTRACTION EVERYWHERE

In attempting to lay out a dif­fer­ent terrain for an aesthetics of abstraction, ­there is a danger in overextending the application of the concept. The world is increasingly filled with abstractions, with hyperrealizations found everywhere we look in daily life. The financial market has moved from gold to fiat to algorithms. ­Labor has moved from muscle to class to pro­cessing. Social relations have moved from rural collectives to urban densities to data analy­sis. Image distribution has moved from frescos to photo­graphs to JPEGs.34 We can consider all of t­ hese as increasingly abstract. If the world is getter ever-­more abstract, then maybe abstraction in art is just a repre­sen­ta­ tion of this accelerating real­ity.35 When considering the art market as the exchange of capital, does not abstraction grease the accumulation of wealth? Does an aesthetics of abstraction ­really just represent the real­ity of late capitalism? But, is this an aesthetic abstraction? Or is this not more indicative of the manner in which knowledge, data, and capital are all accelerated through streamlining their flow?36 This does of course concern aesthetics, but it seems at odds with the effects that have been discussed thus far regarding aesthetic abstraction. The effects identified in this essay have all attempted to slow, to block, to frustrate, to elongate, to intensify, to estrange the aesthetic engagement. ­These would seem to run ­counter to the frictionless flow of art coded as capital. If abstraction is tied to acceleration, it is a very rough acceleration. Jerry Saltz, the se­nior art critic for NewYork magazine, has recently described the top-­selling art of the current market as “Zombie Formalism.”37 He references a variety of artwork, primarily painting that is the most “liquid” in the monetary exchange of the art market.

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Interestingly, it is all abstract art, primarily of a variety that references the abstract art made from the 1950s to the 1970s. This is the art that collectors and dealers are exchanging, and t­here is a cadre of artists producing and feeding this market. It must be acknowledged that a style of abstraction allows this work to flow at top speed, as several familiar versions of abstraction have become very marketable. But, again, are we talking of an aesthetics of abstraction ­here? I think that the argument could be made that this stylistic abstraction is a form of academic art. It is operating through a knowledge of the codes and conventions through which to produce saleable commodities. It is based on an epistemology of what kind of marks on canvas create the stylistic codes for the look of abstraction. This makes the art abstract, but in the terms discussed throughout this essay, the aesthetics is backed by an appeal to the knowledge of an abstraction practiced over a specific time period, by specific artists, represented and promoted by specific institutions, not to an aesthetic abstraction that is outside and in­de­pen­dent of epistemological claims. Aesthetics demands close attention ­toward an object. It refuses to analyze it or transcend it. It grants objects all of their sensorial real­ity and all of their withdrawn depths. It focuses on the tensions between qualities received and implicated allusions. It allows leaps from attention into the speculations of alternate realties. For aesthetics to do all this requires abstraction. We experience the world habitually, as a background. Aesthetics refers to the moments in which this background is engaged in an alternate manner. This estrangement of the background is often created through the devices of abstraction. NOTES

1. ​Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Judgment (1790; Chicago: The University of Chicago, 1952). 2. ​Jacques Rancière, Aisthesis (New York: Verso, 2013). 3. ​Dave Hickey, The Invisible Dragon: Four Essays on Beauty (Los Angeles: Art Issues Press, 1993). 4. ​Steven Shaviro, Discognition (London: Repeater, 2015). 5. ​Elaine Scarry, On Beauty and Being Just (Prince­ton, NJ: Prince­ton University Press, 2001). 6. ​Scarry, On Beauty and Being Just.


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7. ​Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics (New York: Continuum, 2000). 8. ​Graham Harman, The Qua­dru­ple Object (Winchester, UK: Zero Books, 2011). 9. ​Marcus Steinweg, “Concrete Abstraction,” in Public Abstraction (Koln, Denmark: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther Koing, 2015). 10. ​Scarry, On Beauty and Being Just. 11. ​Harman, Qua­dru­ple Object. 12. ​Harman, Qua­dru­ple Object. 13. ​Graham Harman, Guerrilla Metaphysics (Chicago: Open Court, 2011). 14. ​Scarry, On Beauty and Being Just. 15. ​Scarry, On Beauty and Being Just. 16. ​Stephan Heidenreich, “Abstraction with and without Modernism,” in Public Abstraction (Koln, Denmark: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther Koing, 2015). 17. ​Robin Evans, “Abstraction in Painting, Architecture, Mathe­matics,” Architectural Association Lecture, March 11, 1987. 18. ​Van Doesburg, Princi­ples of Neo-­Plastic Art (New York: The New York Graphic Society, 1966). 19. ​Harman, Qua­dru­ple Object. 20. ​Viktor Shklovsky, “Art as Device,” in Theory of Prose (Champaign, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1990). 21. ​Shklovsky, Theory of Prose. 22. ​Shklovsky, Theory of Prose. 23. ​Rancière, Politics of Aesthetics. 24. ​Rancière, Politics of Aesthetics. 25. ​Rancière, Politics of Aesthetics. 26. ​Jacques Rancière, Aesthetics and Its Discontents (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2009). 27. ​Rancière, Aisthesis. 28. ​Rancière, Aisthesis. 29. ​Fredric Jameson, The Antinomes of Realism (London: Verso, 2013). 30. ​Rancière, Politics of Aesthetics. 31. ​Harman, Qua­dru­ple Object. 32. ​ Projective Instruments (Paula Cooper Gallery, 2016). 33. ​Hans den Hartog Jager, “False Marble and Abstract Painting” in False Abstracts (The Hague: De Zwaluw Publishers, 2009).

The Aesthetics of Abstraction 147 34. ​Peter Halley, “Notes on Abstraction” in Selected Essays: 1981–2001 (NewYork: Edgewise, 2013). 35. ​Halley, “Notes on Abstraction.” 36. ​Boris Groys, On the New (New York: Verso, 2014). 37. ​Jerry Saltz, “Zombies on the Walls: Why Does So Much New Abstraction Look the Same?,” Vulture, June 17, 2014, http://­www​.­vulture​.­com​/­2014​/­06​/­why​ -­new​-­abstract​-­paintings​-­look​-­the​-­same​.­html​?­mid​=i­mdb. BIBLIOGRAPHY

Evans, Robin. “Abstraction in Painting, Architecture, Mathe­matics.” Architectural Association Lecture, March 11, 1987. Groys, Boris. On the New. New York: Verso, 2014. Halley, Peter. “Notes on Abstraction.” From Selected Essays: 1981–2001. New York: Edgewise, 2013. Harman, Graham. Guerrilla Metaphysics. Chicago: Open Court, 2011. Harman, Graham. The Qua­dru­ple Object. Winchester, UK: Zero Books, 2011. Hartog Jager, Hans den. “False Marble and Abstract Painting.” In False Abstracts. The Hague: De Zwaluw Publishers, 2009. Heidenreich, Stephan. “Abstraction with and without Modernism.” In Public Abstraction. Koln, Denmark: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther Koing, 2015. Hickey, Dave. The Invisible Dragon: Four Essays on Beauty. Los Angeles: Art Issues Press, 1993. Jameson, Fredric. The Antinomes of Realism. London: Verso, 2013. Kant, Immanuel. The Critique of Judgment. 1790. Reprint, Chicago: The University of Chicago, 1952. Projective Instruments. Paula Cooper Gallery, 2016. Rancière, Jacques. Aesthetics and Its Discontents. Cambridge: Polity, 2009. Rancière, Jacques. Aisthesis. New York: Verso, 2013. Rancière, Jacques. The Politics of Aesthetics. New York: Continuum, 2000. Saltz, Jerry. “Zombies on the Walls: Why Does So Much New Abstraction Look the Same?” Vulture. June 17, 2014. http://­www​.­vulture​.­com​/­2014​/­06​/­why​ -­new​-­abstract​-­paintings​-­look​-­the​-­same​.­html​?­mid​=i­mdb. Scarry, Elaine. On Beauty and Being Just. Prince­ton, NJ: Prince­ton University Press, 2001. Shaviro, Steven. Discognition. London: Repeater, 2015.


Michael Young

Shklovsky, Viktor. “Art as Device.” In Theory of Prose. Champaign, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1990. Steinweg, Marcus. “Concrete Abstraction.” In Public Abstraction. Koln, Denmark: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther Koing, 2015. Van Doesburg. Princi­ples of Neo-­Plastic Art. New York: The New York Graphic Society, 1966.




In both art and nature, beauty always displays a provocative, often novel, pattern or structure. It provokes ways of perceiving this structure, transforming it to extract something significant. That act of transformation is essential to the experience.1

Culture is the totality of socially transmitted patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions, and all other products of ­human work. The most common understanding of aesthetics—­particularly in the West—is that it is the only discourse through which members of a culture consider what is artistically valuable, or beautiful. However, for many non-­Western cultures, it also includes forms of engagement that prompt social responses. Consider the cosmogram (dikenga dia Kongo in the KiKongo language) from Kongo culture, which is a diagram comprised of symbols that depict the cosmos. The design consists of a s­ imple cross with the horizontal line representing the boundary between the living world and that of the dead, and the vertical line representing the path of power from below to above.2 The Kongo cosmogram existed as a longstanding symbolic tradition within the Kongo culture before Eu­ro­pean contact in 1482, and that it continued in use in West-­Central Africa through the early twentieth c­ entury.3 In its fullest embellishment, this cultural model served as an emblematic repre­sen­ta­tion of the Kongo p­ eople, and summarized a broad array of ideas and meta­ phoric messages that comprised their sense of identity within the cosmos. Within its design the Kongo cosmogram contains mirrored worlds within the spiritual journey of the sun, and it connected with funerary ceremonies and the end of life.


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The Kongo cosmogram and similar geometric figures are heritage artifacts that include tangible culture (buildings, monuments, landscapes, books, and arts/crafts), intangible culture (folklore, traditions, language, and knowledge), and nature. ­These repre­sen­ta­tions can be found cosmology—­the science of the origin and development of the universe—­that is a popu­lar theme in Afrofuturism, an emergent literary and cultural aesthetic that, according to scholar Alondra Nelson, offers ways of looking at the subject position of black ­people that covers themes of alienation and aspirations for a better ­future.4 Sun Ra, the late jazz ­music maverick, used science fiction tropes in ­albums and the film Space Is the Place to comment on race and social conditions, which was a forerunner of Afrofuturism. Sun Ra and his contemporaries created the aesthetic blueprint that ushered in a first wave of Afrofuturists that sought visions of the f­ uture based on engagements with science and historical fiction, fantasy, Afrocentricity, and magic realism with non-­Western cosmologies in order to critique not only the present-­day dilemmas of black p­ eople, but also to revise, interrogate, and re-­examine the historical events of the past.5 As a current practice, Afrofuturism has grown globally in the arts: the Afrofuturist Affair was founded by Rasheedah Phillips in Philadelphia, and artists like Demetrius Oliver from New York, Jacque Njeri and Cyrus Kabiru from ­Kenya, Lina Iris Viktor from Liberia, and Dennis Osadebe of Nigeria have all steeped their work in the cosmos, technology, and science fiction. ­These artists’ works juxtapose the diaspora’s African heritage and Western culture to aid in defining who black p­ eople are, what blackness is, and, perhaps, where black culture is ­going. Afrofuturism provides the organ­izing principal for a mosaic of narrative features and rituals.6 It is what Sylvia Wynters calls a “deciphering practice” that functions at the signifying practices of text, cultural contexts, and innovation.7 Thus, the Kongo cosmogram in Afrofuturism as a navigational and cultural device or heritage artifact that triggers the aesthetic response ­will be further explored. The Kongo cosmogram visualizes the concept of ritual and movement, as well as newly established spaces that transform identities and communities. In the diagram, the universe is divided into two parts with the relationship of the land of the dead or Mpemba and this world or Nseke (figure 9.1), and a body of w ­ ater represented by kalunga or the w ­ ater

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Figure 9.1 Kongo cosmogram with kalunga line (center). Courtesy of Nettrice Gaskins.

barrier separating two worlds. In a basement floor at the First African Baptist Church, which is well into its third c­ entury and one of the oldest black churches in the United States, t­ here is space that is four-­feet tall and held hundreds of enslaved Africans following the Savannah River to freedom. Builders punctured holes in the floor in the cross-­and-­diamond shape of an African prayer symbol, the Kongo cosmogram, and publicly worshipped its ancient meaning. Quietly, under­neath, the escapees worshipped the light and air the symbols allowed.8 The Kongo cosmogram is fractal, cyclic, and self-­regenerating; it is eternal and infinite. Certain ele­ments of its design prevail in the ring shout,


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the oldest continuously practiced African-­derived dance in the United States that is still performed ­today. The ring shout is an ecstatic, transcendent religious ritual in which worshipers dance counter-­clockwise in a circle while shuffling and stomping their feet and clapping their hands. The worshipers sing their own improvised hymns, called shouts, in a call-­and-­response format, often pantomiming actions described in songs. This per­for­mance suggests the movement around the Kongo cosmogram: Each person’s turn in the ring was very brief—­ten to thirty seconds—­but packed with action and meaning.  … Acrobatic transitions such as head spins, hand spins, shoulder spins, flips, and the swipe—­a flip of the weight from hands to feet that also involves a twist in the body’s direction—­served as bridges between the footwork and the freeze (halt in movement). The final ele­ment was the exit, a spring back to verticality or a special movement that returned the dancer to the outside of the circle.9

Cosmograms have been elaborated upon across the African Diaspora, showing complex intricate patterns or simplified into abbreviated X’s, or even V’s, implying an arc of travel or motion. Watching the dancers reveals the circular, spiraling movements that replicate the Kongo cosmogram. This replication is what is called the “aesthetic echo.”10 The aesthetic response in this instance embraces improvisation and exists as a form of call and response, which is a pervasive pattern of participation that includes the spontaneous verbal or nonverbal interaction between speaker and listener(s) in which statements (“calls”) from a speaker are emphasized by expressions (“responses”) from the listener(s).11 Circularity pervades West African ideology, and the circle has proved equally impor­tant. Moreover, the watery barrier (kalunga), which separates the corporal and spirit worlds of the Kongo cosmogram, has also found a weighty role in African American cultural production. This design has resonance: the ring shout has evolved to include countless other formations, including freestyle breakdance and rap cyphers in hip-­hop and expressions that represent the universe. T ­ hese examples provoke modes of perception and interaction, with the Kongo cosmogram serving as a moderator between dif­fer­ent positions or states in space and time. This essay explores this phenomenon as it relates to the aesthetic response, by demonstrating how Kongo cosmology produces relevant designs.


It becomes crucial to distinguish between the semblance and similitude of the symbols across diverse cultural experiences—­lit­er­a­ture, art, m ­ usic, ritual, life, death—­and the social specificity of each of ­these productions of meaning as they circulate as signs within specific contextual locations and social systems of value. The transnational dimension of cultural transformation—­migration, diaspora, displacement, and relocation—­makes the pro­cess of cultural translation a complex form of signification.12

All perception requires transformations: when we see, we filter out noise, fill in gaps, connect dots, rotate, stretch, juxtapose. Perception is creative: dif­fer­ent minds interpret similar input differently. The Kongo cosmogram triggers an aesthetic response that mediates perception, interpretation, and, in certain manifestations, transcendent ritual. It exists as a mechanism for aesthetic response, positioning the observer of an event h ­ ere within the moment of now as an interactive part of creation. This cultural model frequently appears in Afrofuturism, an aesthetic that navigates past, pres­ent, and f­uture si­mul­ta­neously. This domain is ever expanding, revealing a universe that reaches beyond the speculative and includes the orbits of many spheres including the arts, humanities, technology, and science. Considering the early West African emphasis on circularity and ­water spirits, and the influence of Kongo cosmology and ritual across the African Diaspora, it should not be surprising that certain aspects of Afrofuturism would share ­these same characteristics. Afrofuturists work in what postcolonial scholar and theorist Homi Bhabha would refer to as a third space of enunciation or expression in which cultural systems are constructed, which includes embedded myths, the construction of culture, and the invention of tradition. Bhabha’s Third Space theory explains the uniqueness of p­ eople or contexts as hybrids. The cosmos, the cross, and ­water, as vehicles for transformation, each define a third space in the Kongo cosmogram. They are found in Afrofuturist m ­ usic. Mississippi blues musician Robert Johnson’s early death gave rise to the Faustian myth that he sold his soul to the devil at a crossroads to achieve fame. Afrofuturism pioneer and jazz maverick Sun Ra, who, like Johnson came from the deep south, was part of the ­Great Migration of African Americans from the southern part of the United States to the Northeast,


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Midwest, and West between 1910 and 1970. Sun Ra brought with him many aspects of black cultural production such as improvisation and other­­worldly my­thol­ogy. The sounds they created though remain suspended in the cosmos. In Kongo cosmology, ­water is the imaginary boundary between the world of the living and the dead. It separates us from the land of the ancestors but also provides a passage to it. Drexciya, an electronic ­music duo from Detroit, established an origin myth based on the M ­ iddle Passage, the route for ships carry­ing enslaved African p­ eople from one geo­g raph­i­cal location to another across the Atlantic Ocean. Drexciya, according to the duo, was an underwater country populated by the unborn c­ hildren of pregnant African ­women thrown off of slave ships who had learned to breathe underwater in their ­mother’s wombs.13 Drexciya is a sonic rupture that exists between geographies that transports listeners to a ­bubble metropolis where the ocean floor is home to the webbed mutants of the Black Atlantic. Drexciya’s first a­lbum release, The Quest, included inner-­sleeve liner notes with a map that illustrates their origin my­thol­ogy and is divided into four stages: The Slave Trade, Migration Route of Rural Blacks to Northern Cities, which features a cosmogram or wormhole, Techno Leaves Detroit, Spreads Worldwide, and The Journey Home (­Future). “In Africa, thousands of years ago, high-­tech nomads began to emerge from a dimensional jump-­hole.  … To ­those that know, (Drexciya) have left their mark all over the world (including in) a subterranean city, deep on the ocean floor … where Africans w ­ ere brought to when they ­were thrown off the slave ships.”14 We can imagine Drexciya as the w ­ ater zone that surrounds land somewhere in the Black Atlantic, with dimensional portals to Africa, North Amer­i­ca, Eu­rope, and beyond Earth. This jump-­hole allows speedy travel between sonic coordinates. Another example that reveals the cosmogram as a third space is the short film ­Until the Quiet Comes by Kahlil Joseph. With this film, Joseph joins the prac­ti­tion­ers of Afrofuturism who harness the speculative mode and African diaspora spirituality and mythologies to represent black ­people’s old and New World experiences. The film is based on a song of the same name by Flying Lotus and pres­ents several ele­ments of the Kongo cosmogram such as the watery boundary of kalunga and the crossroads, the “ghost dance” of a murdered African American youth

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revealing the third space of its design. At the end of the film, the ghost dancer is carried off to the land of the ancestors and perhaps to a f­uture rebirth. COSMOGRAMMA: SURVIVAL VALUE, RESONANCE, AND CONCEPTUAL REMIXING

If, while walking through a northern temperate rainforest, you see a vague shape in the fog, your brain tries to connect the dots, filter the noise, crop, and find patterns. Learning to perceive vague or novel patterns has survival value.15

As a provocative structure, cultural heritage artifact, and navigational device, the Kongo cosmogram stirs the aesthetic response, and coaxes its designer, or participant, to make some kind of transformation. This is evident in Jean-­ Michel Basquiat’s “King Alphonso.” The “technical diagram aspect” of Basquiat’s painting suggests a transition or change from one location to another. Regarding the use of the Kongo cosmogram in Basquiat’s work, Lisa Clark writes, “­These ­angles are reminiscent of the kind of grid and geometry we see over and over in cosmograms. The figure on the right is almost his own cosmogram, a vertical body and arms at 90 degrees to his body, pointing east and west with knife and mallet in each hand.  … We ­will see in other portraits where Basquiat often uses the head and body as a cosmogram matrix or grid, intersecting lines within a circle.”16 The ritual space of the Kongo cosmogram provides us with dif­fer­ent ways to view, encode, or decode African cultural systems with dynamically changing information. Resonances of its values can be found artworks by Xenobia Bailey, who is known for her large-­scale crochet cosmograms, each consisting of colorful concentric circles and repeating patterns. Houston Conwill’s floor cosmograms are e­ tched with words and maps, pro­ jecting designs on marble and wood cosmograms. Architects Carrie Schneider and Susan Rogers worked with Houston youth to plan and implement a pi­lot proj­ect and a toolkit for the Houston Housing Authority. OX4D Plays is a transforming stage that unfolds in three dimensions. The team explored the idea of portals, and each youth participant designed their own circular motifs that appeared on the stage. The sidewalks featured a series of games including kalunga ­water drawings and circular objects from the cosmos such as planets and wormholes (figures 9.2 and 9.3).


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Figure 9.2 OX4D Plays. Courtesy of the University of Houston Community Design Resource Center, Carrie Marie Schneider, and Design & Build teens.

Figure 9.3 OX4D Plays. Courtesy of the University of Houston Community Design Resource Center, Carrie Marie Schneider, and Design & Build teens.

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Schneider says, “The timing of this (proj­ect) overlapped the shooting of Terence Crutcher and the election of Trump. We sat down with the teens and said,‘Look, I know it’s absurd to think about play right now. It is actually less absurd to imagine having space in outer space and in f­uture time than to imagine play right ­here right now.’ So we introduced them to Afrofuturism.”17 Another ele­ment of the aesthetic response, multiplicity, is linked to resonance or the making of art, symbols, and meta­phors more adaptable by enabling them to serve multiple uses within a structure or work of art and travel to other works. The term “conceptual remixing” or sampling pre-­ existing materials and combining them into new forms is ubiquitous in its evolution. Through this method, circular designs used in one kind of perception might be useful in other kinds: “Circular imagery is central to many mystical traditions, the Mandala being a well-­known example.  … The Kongo cosmogram Yowa shows the sign of the cosmos and the continuity of h ­ uman life.”18 The rhythmic weaving of space and motion is a common musical practice in the world. Adam Rudolph notes circularity in John Coltrane’s conception of a cosmogram to compose the song “­Giant Steps,” which shows a “nonlinear multiplicity of pos­si­ble tone relationships.”19 Rudolph points out how some ­music performers use what Miles Davis called “thematic fibers,” relating this to the weaving of threads in repeated patterns of rhythmic regularity and irregularity. Signs such as the Kongo cosmogram influenced African American (Afro-­traditional) quilts. Maude Southwell Wahlman notes that t­hese quilts are similar to ­those found in West African textiles and other African American arts, such as blues, jazz, breakdancing, and rap m ­ usic.20 This idea of weaving themes includes physical, virtual, or spiritual signs and imagery. THE KONGO COSMOGRAM: KALUNGA AND ALTERNATE REALITIES

Rituals such as the ring shout and other implementations not only parallel the Kongo cosmogram, but also embody the creation of multidimensional realities, which are continuously interacted with by individuals and communities. Zaire scholar Kimbwandende Kia Bunseki Fu-­Kiau confirms that using the Kongo cosmogram beyond art is pos­si­ble and states, “Nothing in the daily life of Kôngo society is outside of its cosmological


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Figure 9.4 Cosmic Slop ­music visual (still). Courtesy of Nettrice Gaskins.

practices.”21 Fu-­Kiau’s theory about the three-­dimensionality of the Kongo cosmogram can be applied to science and technology, as well as in many other contexts. Fu-­Kiau complicates the idea of the crossroads and the Kongo cosmogram. His idea links with seemingly disparate concepts such as virtual real­ity (VR) and quantum physics, which explores the fundamental theory of nature at small scales and the energy levels of atoms and subatomic particles. ­These subjects reveal the multidimensional and transformative qualities of the cosmogram in Afrofuturistic works: “A fire-­force complete by itself, kalunga, emerged within the mbungi, the emptiness/ nothingness, and became the source of life on earth.  … The heated force of kalunga blew up and down as a huge storm of projectiles, producing a huge mass in fusion.”22 In Kongo cosmology or dikenga, kalunga represents force vitality, transformation, and change. The explosion Fu-­Kiau describes produces a physical world or real­ity that floats in kalunga, an endless ­water zone in cosmic space. This burst of force and energy is referred to as the Big Bang Theory in the West, which is the prevailing cosmological model for the universe.23 Big bang describes how the universe expanded from a very high-­density and high-­temperature state and offers a explanation for a broad range of phenomena, including the abundance of light and other

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cosmic ele­ments.24 Fu-­Kiau offers another description based on a non-­ Western, Kongo view of the universe. The big bang explosion resulted with light propagating out from it in an expanding circle (figure 9.4). This growing circle is a cosmogram. Kalunga, the barrier that divides worlds, is a generative force that creates light, particles, and energy. Cosmic phenomena populate virtual-­and augmented-­reality spaces, as visualizations, that immerse users and viewers in alternate worlds. An early example of a cosmogram-­based VR system is the Outerspace Visual Communicator (OVC), a complex hybrid visual ­music machine with vari­ous control interfaces for optical electromechanical light sources, electronic video effects and video generation, and intuitive instrumental control. In the 1980s, Afrofuturism pioneer Sun Ra worked with engineer Bill Sebastian of Visual ­Music Systems to create the OVC, now the OVC3D, a 360-­degree, alternate-real­ity experience that uses an Oculus Rift VR headset.25 By analogy to sound-­generating circular algorithms (patterns), we can call this sympathetic excitation “resonance.” Since it leads to qualities like symmetry, meta­phor, parallelism, and so on, resonance is central to the perceptual pro­cess. The OVC-3D begins with an information influx from “nothing” that begins VR space time. The universe was created out of nothing by a big bang that created time and space. For the Kongo, the big bang explosion resulted in the cosmogram, all of which does not pass to audiences directly but through physical media such as a VR headset. The VR cosmogram contains an invisible kalunga that positions p­ eople in or around physical and virtual objects on a two-­dimensional surface. The OVC-3D transports us into a four-­dimensional space time continuously interacted with by users who can move in four directions on a horizontal plane—­forward, backward, leftward, and rightward—as well as vertically downward, upward, and inward. This development corresponds with the “dimensional jump-­hole” described in Drexciya’s liner notes for The Quest, as well as the hy­po­thet­i­cal wormhole in quantum physics that stretches space and time, linking the cosmogram and extending space time into the fourth dimension. Colorful fireworks explode to the rhythm of the beat, producing a wonderful synesthetic atmosphere. The work suggests that the digital may not be as spiritually empty as we think, but rather pres­ents opportunities for rousing transcendence.26


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Some of the ideas presented in this essay came together in the 2017 exhibition, “We Have Always Lived in the F ­ uture,” at Flux Factory in Long Island City, NY. For “Afrofuturism Amplified in Three-­Dimensions,” physics models and ideas ­were considered, including M-­theory, which suggests the universe lies on a three-­dimensional “brane” that floats in time along a fifth dimension.27 This space is kalunga. The cyclic-­ekpyrotic model postulates that we exist in one of two three-­dimensional worlds that collide and retreat in an eternal cycle along a hidden extra-­connecting dimension.28 Modern physics experiments dilate time, curve space, and teleport objects. “Afrofuturism Amplified” combined physical sculpture with augmented real­ity (AR) and VR (figure 9.5). The work referenced W. E. B. DuBois’s 1908 essay “The Princess Steel.” DuBois writes about two technologies that are relevant to our time now. The first is a mechanism by which a ­human action can be represented in two dimensions on a thin transparent film. Layering such films one on top of another produces a repre­sen­ta­tion of the “history of ­these deeds in days and months and years.”29 DuBois also

Figure 9.5 OVC-3D in “Afrofuturism Amplified in Three Dimensions,” 2017. Courtesy of ­Nettrice Gaskins.

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describes the Megascope that, when worn on the head of the protagonist, transports them to alternate worlds. He uses ­these fictional technologies to transport the reader into virtual worlds. In the Flux Factory show, a reflective “prism” made of two acrylic panels was suspended from the ceiling. A plate of mirrored acrylic was placed at an a­ ngle to reflect a 2D projection ­toward the viewer. An image appeared on a second piece of clear acrylic that appeared, reappeared, and changed in shape depending on where the viewer stood. Next to this object was the OVC-3D (VR Megascope). Design fictions such as the Megascope and devices such as the OVC precede the Oculus Rift by de­cades. ­These inventions assist the aesthetic response by immersing visitors in or around spaces, thereby, transforming space and time. The visitor is, as described by Fu-­Kiau, an object in motion, an “around-­path-­goer” in upper (physical) and lower (virtual) worlds.30 Virtual (VR, AR) pro­cesses simulate events as a series of transitions, like frames of a film or dynamic prism (sculpture). The patterns produced by the virtual systems ­were generated using the ­music of Sun Ra. Initially, the OVC-3D was played in real time like a musical instrument. The colors and patterns ­were triggered instantaneously by the actions of the artist. Users experience the captured per­for­mance of the artist. This work served as a starting point for creating art that moves Kongo cosmology from two dimensions to virtual 3D worlds and beyond. CONCLUSION

The aesthetic response serves the function of stabilizing the pathways and portals that successfully mediate perception and interpretation, making ­those capacities more agile, conferring selective advantage to ele­ments such as kalunga (­water) or the crossroads motif from the Kongo cosmogram. ­These aspects of Kongo cosmology survive the ages and ele­ments reproduced in myriad forms such as in ritual and per­for­mance spaces, public artworks, and VR animations. The Kongo cosmogram is triggered by structures in art and nature that provoke the making of sense. Afrofuturism triggers the aesthetic response in viewers; thus, if successful, it serves the function of making perception and interpretation of heritage artifacts more agile or able to be used in vari­ous ways. Artists who are inspired by the form and function of the Kongo cosmogram might also perceive


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Sun Ra’s use of the motif in the form of a scepter or symbolic staff. Certain motifs such as concentric circles and cosmic rays become decorative ele­ments in found object sculptures and floor installations. Cultural models such as the Kongo cosmogram provide hints of the aesthetics through circular motifs that are manifestations of Kongo/ Bakongo culture across the African Diaspora. Ele­ments such as kalunga define a space of transformation, while recent developments in fields such as architecture and computing provide new ways to experience and understand the Kongo cosmogram. Cosmographic visualizations in VR systems such as Bill Sebastian’s OVC-3D respond to Sun Ra’s jazz ­music. The African prayer symbols in the floor of the First African Baptist Church, the ring shout and other rituals, and heritage artifacts represent Drexciya’s “dimensional jump-­holes,” linking Afrofuturist cultural production across the African Diaspora. Many of ­these artworks represent birth, life, death, and rebirth. Prac­ti­tion­ers use ­these cultural symbols and themes to find knowledge, to help them on their journeys. T ­ hese works initiate a cascade of emergent, cosmic phenomena, which account for many observed qualities of aesthetics, including improvisation or call-­and-­response participation, survival value, multiplicity and resonance, the tinkering or remixing of physical and virtual artifacts, and the fact that methods of making correspond to modes of perceptual transformation. NOTES

1. ​Daniel Conrad, “A Functional Model of the Aesthetic Response,” accessed May 4, 2017, http://­www​.­contempaesthetics​.­org​/­newvolume​/­pages​/­article​.­php​ ?­articleID​=­581. 2. ​Robert Farris Thompson, Flash of the Spirit: African and Afro-­American Art and Philosophy (New York: Random House, 1985), 108. 3. ​Robert Farris Thompson and Joseph Cornet, The Four Moments of the Sun: Kongo Art in Two Worlds (New Haven, CT: Eastern Press, 1981). 4. ​Alondra Nelson, “Introduction: F ­ uture Texts,” Social Text 20, no. 2 (2002): 1–15. 5. ​Mark Dery, Black to the ­Future, Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1994). 6. ​James Lewis Hoberman, “ ‘Space Is the Place’ Offers Otherworldly Takes on Identity,” New York Times, April 2, 2015. 7. ​Sylvia Wynter, “Rethinking Aesthetics: Notes to a Deciphering Practice,” in Exiles: Essays on Ca­rib­bean Cinema (Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 1992), 237–279.

Cosmogramic Design 165 8. ​Jamie Gumbrecht, “Past Inspires Modern Solutions for Historic Black Church,” CNN, accessed May 4, 2017, http://­www​.­cnn​.­com​/­2010​/­LIVING​/­10​/­21​/­oldest​ .­savannah​.­church. 9. ​Nelson George, Fresh: Hip Hop D ­ on’t Stop (New York: Random House, 1985), 90. 10. ​Jacquelynn Baas and Mary Jane Jacob, Buddha Mind in Con­temporary Art (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006), 20. 11. ​George Smitherman, Talkin and Testifyin: The Language of Black Amer­i­ca (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1977). 12. ​Homi Jehangir Bhabha, Location of Culture (London: Routledge, 1993), 247. 13. ​Ben Williams, “Black Secret Technology: Detroit Techno and the Information Age” in Technicolor: Race, Technology, and Everyday Life, ed. Alondra Nelson, Thuy Linh N. Tu, and Alicia Headlam Hines (New York: New York University Press, 2001), 168. 14. ​Steven Rennicks, “Grava 4,” accessed May 4, 2017, http://­drexciyaresearchlab​ .­blogspot​.­com​/­2005​/­09​/­grava​-­4​.­html. 15. ​Conrad, “Functional Model of the Aesthetic Response.” 16. ​Lisa Clark, “Jean-­Michel Basquiat: The African Cosmogram as a Blueprint for Modern Art,” Ancient Charts and Modern Art, accessed May 4, 2017, https:// lisakyleclark​.­wordpress​.­com​/­2013​/­04​/­08​/­modern​-­art​-­and​-­ancientcharts​-­the​ -­african​-­cosmogram​-­as​-­a​-­blueprint​-­for​-­the​-­works​-­of​-­jean​-­michel​-­basquiat. 17. ​Carrie Marie Schneider, Afrofuturist Play Spaces in Houston TX, email message to author, 2017. 18. ​Adam Rudolph, “­Music and Mysticism, Rhythm and Form: A Blues Romance in 12 Parts,” in Arcana V (New York: Distributed Art Publishers, 2010), 331. 19. ​Rudolph, “­Music and Mysticism.” 20. ​Maude Wahlman, Signs and Symbols: African Images in African-­American Quilts (Atlanta: Tinwood Books, 2002). 21. ​Kimbwandende Kia Bunseki Fu-­Kiau, Tying the Spiritual Knot: African Cosmology of the Bântu-­Kôngo (Brooklyn, NY: Athelia Henrietta, 2001), 38–39. 22. ​Fu-­Kiau, Tying the Spiritual Knot, 19. 23. ​Joseph Silk, Horizons of Cosmology: Exploring Worlds Seen and Unseen (West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton, 2009), 208. 24. ​Edward J. Wollack, “Cosmology: The Study of the Universe,” in Universe 101: Big Bang Theory (Cambridge, MA: NASA, 2010). 25. ​James ­Sullivan, “Inventor Brings 3-­D Vision to ­Music,” Boston Globe, April 2, 2013.


Nettrice R. Gaskins

26. ​Zachary Small, “­Future Perfect: Flux Factory’s Intersectional Approach to Technology,” Art in Amer­i­ca, accessed May 4, 2017, http://­www​.­artinamerica​ magazine​.­com​/­news​-­features​/­news​/­future​-­perfect​-­a​-­call​-­for​-­intersectional​-­tech​ nology​-­at​-­flux​-­factory. 27. ​John Gribbin, In Search of Superstrings: Symmetry, Membranes and the Theory of Every­thing (London: Icon, 2007), 177–180. 28. ​Justin Khoury, Burt A. Ovrut, Paul J. Steinhardt, and Neil Turok, “Ekpyrotic Universe: Colliding Branes and the Origin of the Hot Big Bang,” Physical Review D 64, no. 12 (2001). 29. ​W. E. B. DuBois, “The Princess Steel,” PMLA 130, no. 3 (May 2015): 823. 30. ​Fu-­Kiau, Tying the Spiritual Knot, 22. BIBLIOGRAPHY

Baas, Jacquelynn, and Mary Jane Jacob. Buddha Mind in Con­temporary Art. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006. Bhabha, Homi Jehangir. Location of Culture. London: Routledge, 1993. Clark, Lisa. “Jean-­Michel Basquiat: The African Cosmogram as a Blueprint for Modern Art.” Ancient Charts and Modern Art. Accessed May 4, 2017. https://­ lisakyleclark​.­wordpress​.­com​/­2013​/­04​/­08​/­modern​-­art​-­and​-­ancientcharts​-­the​ -­african​-­cosmogram​-­as​-­a​-­blueprint​-­for​-­the​-­works​-­of​-­jean​-­michel​-­basquiat. Conrad, Daniel. “A Functional Model of the Aesthetic Response.” Con­temporary Aesthetics. Accessed May 4, 2017. http://­www​.­contempaesthetics​.­org/newvolume​ /­pages​/­article​.­php​?­articleID​=­581. Dery, Mark. Black to the ­Future, Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1994. DuBois, W. E. B. “The Princess Steel.” PMLA 130, no. 3 (May 2015): 823. Fu-­Kiau, Kimbwandende Kia Bunseki. Tying the Spiritual Knot: African Cosmology of the Bântu-­Kôngo. Brooklyn, NY: Athelia Henrietta, 2001. George, Nelson. Fresh: Hip Hop ­Don’t Stop. New York: Random House, 1985. Gribbin, John. In Search of Superstrings: Symmetry, Membranes and the Theory of Every­ thing. London: Icon, 2007. Gumbrecht, Jamie. “Past Inspires Modern Solutions for Historic Black Church.” Accessed May 4, 2017. http://­www​.­cnn​.­com​/­2010​/­LIVING​/­10​/­21/oldest​ Hoberman, James Lewis. “ ‘Space Is the Place’ Offers Otherworldly Takes on Identity.” New York Times, April 2, 2015.

Cosmogramic Design 167 Khoury, Justin, Burt A. Ovrut, Paul J. Steinhardt, and Neil Turok. “Ekpyrotic Universe: Colliding Branes and the Origin of the Hot Big Bang.” Physical Review D 64, no. 12 (2001). doi:10.1103/64123522. Nelson, Alondra. “Introduction: ­Future Texts.” Social Text 20, no. 2 (2002): 1–15. Rennicks, Steven. “Grava 4.” Drexciya Research Lab. Accessed May 4, 2017. http://­ drexciyaresearchlab​.­blogspot​.­com​/­2005​/­09​/­grava​-­4​.­html. Rudolph, Adam. “­Music and Mysticism, Rhythm and Form: A Blues Romance in 12 Parts.” In Arcana V, 331. New York: Distributed Art Publishers, 2010. Silk, Joseph. Horizons of Cosmology: Exploring Worlds Seen and Unseen. West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton, 2009. Small, Zachary. “­Future Perfect: Flux Factory’s Intersectional Approach to Technology.” Art in Amer­i­ca. Accessed May 4, 2017. http://­www​.­artinamericamagazine​ .­com​/­news​-­features​/­news​/­future​-­perfect​-­a​-­call​-­for​-­intersectional​-­technology​ -­at​-­flux​-­factory. Smitherman, George. Talkin and Testifyin: The Language of Black Amer­ic­ a. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1977. ­Sullivan, James. “Inventor Brings 3-­DVision to M ­ usic.” Boston Globe, April 2, 2013. Thompson, Robert Farris. Flash of the Spirit: African and Afro-­American Art and Philosophy. New York: Random House, 1985. Thompson, Robert Farris, and Joseph Cornet. The Four Moments of the Sun: Kongo Art in Two Worlds. New Haven, CT: Eastern Press, 1981. Wahlman, Maude. Signs and Symbols: African Images in African-­American Quilts. Atlanta: Tinwood Books, 2002. Williams, Ben. “Black Secret Technology: Detroit Techno and the Information Age.” In Technicolor: Race, Technology, and Everyday Life, edited by Alondra Nelson, Thuy Linh N. Tu, and Alicia Headlam Hines, 168. NewYork: NewYork University Press, 2001. Wollack, Edward J. “Cosmology: The Study of the Universe.” In Universe 101: Big Bang Theory. Cambridge, MA: NASA, 2010. Wynter, Sylvia. “Rethinking Aesthetics: Notes to a Deciphering Practice.” In Exiles: Essays on Ca­rib­bean Cinema, 237–279. Trenton, NJ: African World Press, 1992.



A specter is haunting Theory—­the specter of affirmation. All the powers of Old Theory have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this specter: the masters of suspicion and their acolytes hold fast to the work of unmasking hidden forces of oppression, but the ghost shows no sign of departing. Though Bruno Latour’s 2004 essay “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?” has drawn the lion’s share of attention and seems to pinpoint the haunting to the early years of the new c­ entury,1 in real­ity, the ghost of affirmation first appeared in 1997 in Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s deliciously titled essay, “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading; or, ­You’re So Paranoid, You Prob­ably Think This Introduction Is about You.” Sedgwick, like Latour, was responding to the insistence, almost universally declared, that cultural practice is of value only when it serves the imperatives of critique, when the artist (or historian who interprets the artist’s work) deploys her craft for the purpose of exposing the structures of domination that lie beneath the surface of what appear to the uninitiated to be nothing more than beneficent aesthetic expressions.2 In the waning years of the last ­century, as if to put a final turn to the screw of critique by critiquing critique itself, Sedgwick insisted that “plea­sure, grief, excitement, boredom, satisfaction are the substance of politics rather than their antithesis” and that “it’s well to attend intimately to literary texts, not b­ ecause their transformative energies e­ ither transcend or disguise the coarser stuff of ordinary being, but ­because ­those energies are the stuff of ordinary being.”3 Against the unrelenting demand—­“always critique!”—­Sedgwick, Latour, and ­others (Rita Felski, most recently) cast about for alternative


Roger Rothman

practices.4 Latour proposes to replace the critic’s inclination to debunk and demystify with “the cultivation of a stubbornly realist attitude” that he associates with the constructive (rather than deconstructive) efforts of empiricism.5 Sedgwick, for her part, proposes to replace the critic’s unrelenting “paranoia” with the therapist’s investment in the reparative.6 In a similar spirit, I call for a return to the princi­ple of affirmation. I insist on the term “affirmation” not simply ­because it rubs against de­cades of critical theory in which so-­called affirmative culture (Marcuse) is all but irredeemable, but also, and more substantively, ­because the first step in any constructive act, any reparative gesture, is the act of affirmation, the act of saying “yes” within an environment in which “no” seems the only reasonable response.7 Hal Foster has been one of a handful of theorists to raise such a reasonable objection to the critique of critique. Though he is willing to grant that “of course, such critique is never enough: one must intervene in what is given, somehow turn it, and take it elsewhere,” he insists, nevertheless, that such “turning begins with critique.”8 The ghost of affirmation responds in turn with an inquiry into the word “somehow” that made its way into Foster’s objection. It is precisely on the question of this “somehow” that the critics of critique have insisted we focus our attention. Indeed, we would do well to ask ourselves, yet again, if indeed critique can do any more than point to prob­lems against which it is wholly impotent. Marcuse lamented as much more than a half c­ entury ago in the final pages of One-­Dimensional Man. Critical Theory, Marcuse regrets to announce “cannot offer the remedy.” Its truth secured, “the dialectical concept pronounces its own hopelessness.”9 Like Adorno, for whom “[works of art], as eminently constructed and produced objects, … point to a practice from which they abstain: the creation of a just life,”10 Marcuse’s pronouncement of hopelessness proleptically replies to Foster by acknowledging the inescapable limitation of the critical enterprise. Critique can look, but not touch. It can reveal, but cannot change. This would seem to be the source of distress for Benjamin Buchloh, who, like Foster, has devoted his ­career to detailing the means by which artists of the last fifty years have advanced the critical enterprise. Reflecting on twenty years of brilliant analyses of artists such as Michael Asher, Marcel Broodthaers, and Daniel Buren, Buchloh introduces the republication of his most influential essays with the “painful” recognition that “the sclerotic fixation on a model of reductivist criticality or instrumentalized rationality in

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artistic practices does not promise to be any more productive than an adherence to the foundationalist myths of the perennial validity of the classical genres and production procedures of painting and sculpture” and that one would do well to focus instead “on the aesthetic capacity to construct the mnemonic experience as one of the few acts of re­sis­tance against the totality of spectacularization.”11 Recent attempts to resuscitate aesthetic experience—to establish a  counterhegemonic practice capable of resisting “the totality of spectacularization”—­invariably ground the aesthetic within a discourse of negation. Elaine Scarry, for example, contrasts the presence of aesthetic harmony with the absence of ethical harmony.12 In a similar fashion, Jacques Rancière identifies the aesthetic with a promise of freedom and equality— a condition that, by definition, excludes the immanence of both.13 This essay tracks a fundamentally dif­fer­ent conception of the politics of the aesthetic. Grounded neither in Scarry’s liberalism nor Rancière’s Marxism, the position articulated h ­ ere is one in which the immanent politics of anarchism give shape to an immanent aesthetics, an aesthetics in which negation is supplanted by affirmation, dialectics by repetition, and art’s autonomy by its ridiculousness. My first step ­will be to sketch the affirmative politics of anarchism; my second w ­ ill be to return to Kant (as do Scarry and Rancière) for an alternative account of aesthetic experience, one which is vis­i­ble in the margins of his comparison between the beautiful and the sublime. My third and final step w ­ ill be to identify a handful of artistic practices in which an affirmative and anarchist aesthetic emerged from within the rubble of the historical avant-­garde—­that is, from the fractured terrain on which both Foster and Buchloh construct their accounts of the neo-­avant-­garde and, with it, the aesthetics of ideology critique. THE GENTLE WORK OF BEAUTY

In response to Buchloh’s proffered alternative to the exhaustion of critique, I would propose that t­ hese minimal “acts of re­sis­tance” have themselves become compensatory lamentations, and that a more ­viable solution is to allow the noble dialectics of negation to give way to a program of affirmation, at once more modest and less morose than the critical proj­ect to which Buchloh and Foster have pinned their hopes. Indeed, we would do well to make note of the fact that the ghost of affirmation began to haunt


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theory about the same time as Marxist social formations began to give way to modes of po­liti­cal engagement more readily comprehended within the framework of anarchist thought. Recalling Kropotkin’s insistence that “it is not enough to destroy. We must also know how to build,”14 the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle, the events of the Arab Spring, and t­hose of the Occupy Movement owe more to what Richard Day has called the “affinity-­based practices” of anarchism than to the counterhegemonic practices of Marxism. Writing in 2005, Day proposed that “what is most in­ter­est­ing about con­temporary radical activism is that some groups are … operating nonhegemonically rather than counterhegemonically. They seek radical change, but not through taking or influencing state power, and in so ­doing they challenge the logic of hegemony at its very core.”15 I would go farther even than Day: Social movements like the Arab Spring and Occupy have not only rejected the counterhegemonic practices of Marxism, they have abandoned the dialectical mode within which the discourse of both critique and counterhegemony are founded. (This is to say that they go farther, even, than Kropotkin, for whom destruction remains at the forefront, even if it is conceived within a context of construction.) As Day himself acknowledges, the foundations of his model of affinity-­ based practices is the writing of Gustav Landauer, an early twentieth-­ century anarchist who has been gaining increasing relevance in recent years (in no small part ­because of the prominence Day has given to his writing). Landauer’s revolutionary politics ­were grounded, not in the dialectics of critique and negation, but rather in what he referred to as “an alliance of alliances.”16 Still more antidialectical thinking is evident in Bakunin, who insisted that “freedom can be created only by freedom.”17 Taking Landauer and Bakunin seriously means taking seriously the possibility of an explic­itly nondialectical politics. What, then, have anarchists proposed in place of the dialectics of negation (of hegemony and counterhegemony)? By what means are the prevailing conditions of the pres­ent supposed to be transformed? For Marx, of course, ­there is but one moment of change: “total revolution.” “Indeed,” he writes, in Misère de la philosophie, his critique of Prou­dhon’s 1846 book, Système des contradictions économiques, ou Philosophie de la misère, “is it at all surprising that a society founded on the opposition of classes should culminate in brutal contradiction, the shock of body against body, as its final dénouement?”18 Anarchism, at least in the main, deploys a fundamentally dif­fer­ent

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model of social transformation, one founded on a rejection of the notion that all of social life is but the manifestation of a single unifying conflict. In The Po­liti­cal Philosophy of Poststructuralist Anarchism, a book that, like Day’s, has played a central role in what is sometimes referred to as “postanarchism,”19 Todd May distinguishes anarchism’s affinity-­based practices from the oppositional practices of Marxism as “the tactical” versus “the strategic.” Within the strategic model, social change “must rest upon a transformation at the base. Reducibility, then, lies at the core of strategic po­liti­cal thinking. All prob­lems can be reduced to the basic one; justice is am ­ atter of solving the basic prob­lem.” Within the tactical framework, however, “­there is no center within which power is to be located.”20 With no central power against which to stage counterhegemonic opposition, tactically oriented social change is piecemeal in the extreme. This, in turn, requires a rethinking of the division between “revolution” and “reform.” ­Here, too, another of May’s distinctions—­this time between “qualitative” and “quantitative”—is useful: The m ­ istake that is made in contrasting revolution to reform lies in the assumption that the former involves a qualitative change in society, while the latter involves only a quantitative change. However, on the alternative picture of politics being sketched ­here, t­here are in real­ity only quantitative changes, qualitative ones being defined in terms of them. A revolution, then, is not a change from one fundamental form of society to another; rather, it is a change or set of changes whose effects sweep across the society, causing changes in many other parts of the social domain.21

The model sketched h ­ ere—of an antitotalizing conception of social change founded on a multiplicity of small, tactical efforts—is not, of course, new to con­temporary postanarchism. It draws upon a legacy that, as Day makes explicit, reaches back to the major anarchists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, especially that of Landauer. For Day, it is Landauer who most fully articulated an affinity-­based model of social change in which the distinction between reform and revolution no longer abides, and in which the tactical supplants the strategic. In “Weak Statesman, Weaker ­People!” first published in 1910, Landauer introduced a model of social relations that fundamentally broke with the substantialist conception of entities like states and social classes. The question Landauer posed for himself and ­those around him who insisted upon a politics of vio­lence and opposition was the following: upon what ontology is such


Roger Rothman

a conception founded? If the State is a ­thing, an entity like a mountain or a building, one might well be justified in speaking of its destruction. But what if this conception of the State is incorrect? What if it is not, in fact, a ­thing? How does one do away with it if it cannot be torn down or blown up? For Landauer, an entirely new approach is required: A ­table can be overturned and a win­dow can be smashed. However, ­those who believe that the state is also a ­thing or a fetish that can be overturned or smashed are sophists and believers in the Word. The state is a social relationship; a certain way of ­people relating to one another. It can be destroyed by creating new social relationships; i.e., by p­ eople relating to one another differently. The absolute monarch said: I am the state. We, who we have imprisoned ourselves in the absolute state, must realize the truth: we are the state! And we ­will be the state as long as we are nothing dif­fer­ent; as long as we have not yet created the institutions necessary for a true community and a true society of ­human beings.22

“The state is a social relationship.” Of all the claims made by early theorists of anarchism, perhaps this one is the most radical. Certainly it has had a profound impact on the thinking of subsequent generations. Well before Day appears to have rediscovered Landauer’s writing, it was central to Martin Buber, whose Paths in Utopia (1949) played a crucial role in bringing Landauer’s work to an English-­speaking audience.23 Buber’s reading of Landauer in turn influenced that of Paul Goodman and, through Goodman, Colin Ward, whose Anarchy in Action (1973) opens with an unequivocally affirmative assertion—­“How would you feel if you discovered that the society in which you would r­eally like to live was already ­here, apart from a few ­little, local difficulties like exploitation, war, dictatorship, and starvation?”—­and which turns directly to Landauer’s conception of the state as a relationship rather than a ­thing as well as Goodman’s tactical and iterative conception of social change as “the extension of spheres of f­ ree action u ­ ntil they make up most of social life.”24 In a related vein, and as if anticipating the subsequent claims of May regarding the nondistinction between reform and revolution, Ward insists that “the choice between libertarian and authoritarian solutions is not a once-­and-­for-­all cataclysmic strug­gle, it is a series of ­running engagements, most of them never concluded, which occur, and have occurred, throughout history.”25 In other words, the anarchist conception

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of social change—at least as inherited from Landauer—is inescapably gradual, iterative, and, quite possibly, unending.26 A second candidate for the title of most radical of all t­ hose proposed by Landauer, if not all of the theorists of anarchism, is one that follows logically on the heels of his foundational insistence that the State is not a ­thing but a set of relations. With nothing substantive to destroy or dismantle, the gradual and iterative work of creating new social relations ­will, of necessity, involve the sorts of affirmative actions that Sedgwick called “reparative” and Latour “constructive”: “Therefore let us destroy mainly by means of the gentle, permanent, and binding real­ity that we build.” The passage in which this remarkable proposal appears deserves consideration in full: [T]he socialism we are calling for loudly ­here, and speaking of quietly, is also the gentle real­ity of the permanent beauty of the life of men together. It is not the wild, ugly transitional destruction of ugly contemporaneity, a destruction which perhaps ­will have to be a by-­product, but which would be ruinous, un-­ salutary and futile to invoke if the gentle work of the beauty of life had not previously been done in our souls and through them in real­ity. All innovation has, despite all the ardent enthusiasm that it carries, something desolate, ugly and impious about it. All old ­things, even the most ill-­reputed or archaic institutions such as the military or the national state, b­ ecause they are old and have a tradition, despite all their decrepitude, needlessness and obsolescence, have a glimmer, as it ­were, of beauty. Therefore let us be the type of innovators in whose anticipatory imagination, that which they want to create already lives as something finished, tried and tested, and anchored in the past, in primeval and sacred life. Therefore let us destroy mainly by means of the gentle, permanent and binding real­ity that we build.27

With this, Landauer broaches the question of the relation between aesthetics and politics. The gradual, nondialectical transformation of the world ­will proceed at a “gentle” pace, and the life of “men together” ­will manifest a “permanent beauty.” THE RIDICU­LOUS

Landauer’s po­liti­cal proj­ect (and, following it, the proj­ects of Buber, Goodman, Ward, and Day) is thus at odds with the critical enterprise—an enterprise founded on the logic of expose-­and-­negate, debunk-­and-­destroy. Instead of a dialectical movement of thesis and antithesis, Landauer


Roger Rothman

proposes a dilational pro­cess, whereby small affirmative acts are linked one to the other in an expanding network of relations. That ­these relations are at odds with the dominant forces of the moment (the military, the nation state) and yet contain “a glimmer” of beauty, is, for Landauer, a sign that critique is insufficient and that, in its place, an affirmative proj­ect is the only solution. At the same time, Landauer’s conception of social transformation explic­itly establishes a relationship between politics and aesthetics. And the key to Landauer’s understanding of this relationship lies in terms like “gentle” and “glimmer”—to them adheres a sense of the small, the modest, the slow. Against the sublime cataclysm of violent opposition (“the wild, ugly transitional destruction of ugly contemporaneity”), Landauer proposes an aesthetic that would seem almost too small to accomplish anything at all. Indeed, one might well dismiss it as altogether ridicu­lous. To get a clearer purchase on the anarchist aesthetics at work in Landauer’s affirmation of gentle and binding beauty, we would do well to turn to what is arguably the most renowned of all the anarchist reflections on the relation between aesthetics and politics, Emma Goldman’s emphatic proclamation: If I c­an’t dance, I ­don’t want your revolution! For Goldman, ­there ­will be no delayed satisfaction, no dialectical pro­cess by which happiness is held in abeyance, permitted to appear only a­ fter the serious work of social change is complete.28 As she recalled in Living My Life, one of her tasks in New York was to “get the girls in the trade to join the strike.” And to accomplish that task, Goldman found that one of the most effective means was to or­ga­nize dances. She loved the dances, but one day, a boy took her aside and, “with a grave face as if he ­were about to announce the death of a dear comrade,” he told her that “it did not behoove an agitator to dance.” It was “undignified,” he said. Her “frivolity would only hurt the Cause.” She was immediately rankled and let him know it: I told him to mind his own business. I was tired of having the Cause constantly thrown into my face. I did not believe that a Cause which stood for a beautiful ideal, for anarchism, for release and freedom from convention and prejudice, should demand the denial of life and joy. I insisted that our Cause could not expect me to become a nun and that the movement would not be turned into a cloister. If it meant that, I did not want it. “I want freedom, the right to self-­ expression, every­body’s right to beautiful, radiant ­things.”29

­ very time I read this passage, imagining the scene of Goldman’s outrage at E the demand that she refrain from all plea­sure ­until a­ fter the revolution, I’m

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reminded, as if compelled by the force of negation, of Adorno’s accusation that the experience of unmitigated plea­sure in art is “infantile.”30 Goldman’s plea­sure in dance would be condemned by Adorno for the same reason it was by her contemporaries. Her plea­sure was ignoble, her joy ridicu­lous. Goldman’s rebuke at the hands of her male comrades also recalls Kant’s reflections on the sublime, for the accusation against her was that she was insufficiently serious, and her insistence upon plea­sure lacked a sense of the ­grand scale of the revolutionary endeavor. For Kant, the sublime is the only aesthetic experience within which to construct a universal ethics (and with it, a rational and sustaining politics), for the sublime attracts us, pleases us, ­because it indicates to us the presence of a universal and all-­powerful Law—­thus Kant’s famous insistence: “Among moral qualities, true virtue alone is sublime.”31 Other virtues, such as sympathy and love, want for a proper sense of the universal, and thus fall prey to any number of misguided attachments: “For it is not pos­si­ble that our bosom should swell with tenderness on behalf of ­every ­human being and swim in melancholy for every­one ­else’s need, other­wise the virtuous person, like Heraclitus constantly melting into sympathetic tears, with all this good-­heartedness would nevertheless become nothing more than a tenderhearted idler.”32 For Kant, the issue of scale is crucial. The sublime is not simply large, it is absolutely large. “We call sublime that which is absolutely ­great [schlechthin groß].  … [Saying] that something is g­ reat is also something entirely dif­fer­ ent from saying that it is absolutely ­great.  … The latter is that which is ­great beyond all comparison.”33 That which is absolutely ­great—­great beyond all comparison—is that which demands our dutiful submission and which is, for Kant, the pivotal step in the transformation of a society of vio­lence into a society of universal laws.34 This is well known. What is less apparent, however, is that t­ here exists, in the margins of Kant’s reflection on the affective modes of aesthetic experience and their po­liti­cal implications, the outlines of a radically dif­fer­ent constellation of aesthetics and politics. For the introduction of the “absolutely ­g reat” inevitably provokes the question of its inverse. What is the “absolutely small”? What is the sublime’s inverted other? Would it, perhaps, make room for Goldman’s dance, Day’s affinity-­based practices, and Landauer’s gentle construction of a community of equals? Kant’s Critique of the Power of Judgement does, in fact, broach the question of the absolutely small, and when it does, we find, unsurprisingly, that


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Kant holds it in the lowest pos­si­ble esteem: “If … we say of an object absolutely that it is g­ reat, … in that case we always combine a kind of re­spect with the repre­sen­ta­tion, just as we combine contempt with that which we call absolutely small [schlechtweg klein].”35 Only once in the Critique of the Power of Judgement does Kant use the phrase “absolutely small,” but, in its unmentioned condition elsewhere in the book, and even more so in Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and the Sublime, it haunts Kant’s aesthetic theory like a ghost. Though the phrase itself appears only once, the associated aesthetic feeling is mentioned a number of times. Kant calls it the ridicu­lous and its significance is signaled by its antithetical relation to the sublime: “Nothing is so opposed to the beautiful as the disgusting, just as nothing sinks more deeply beneath the sublime than the ridicu­lous.”36 Kant’s formulation should surprise us, at least initially. It is often thought that the beautiful and the sublime are opposites. Though opposed in many re­spects, they are not, strictly speaking, opposites.37 Indeed, from the perspective of Observations, if not Critique of Judgment, the ridicu­lous is best comprehended as the unmentionable truth of the beautiful. It is the beautiful in its pure state, the beautiful once all trace of the sublime is drained away (“the feeling of the beautiful degenerates if the noble is entirely lacking from it, and one calls it ridicu­lous”).38 In other words, the ridicu­lous is thus the beautiful when it is stripped of even a modicum of the sublime. Kant underscores this in account of the be­hav­iors of an individual motivated by this degenerate form of the beautiful. Sympathy and complaisance inhibit one’s adherence to the requirements of justice and duty: “From affectionate complaisance he ­will be a liar, an idler, a drunkard, e­ tc., for he does not act in accordance with the rules for good conduct in general, but rather in accordance with an inclination that is beautiful in itself but which in so far as it is without self-­control and without princi­ples becomes ridicu­lous.”39 Thus, and rather strikingly, the beautiful is only ever itself when it is also a ­little bit sublime. In its unalloyed state, the beautiful exists only in its degenerate form as a feeling without the necessary “self-­control” and “princi­ples” required to raise it above the execrable condition of the ridicu­lous. Throughout Observations, Kant identifies a number of ­things worthy of being called ridicu­lous. Certain poetic forms are ridicu­lous, as are men who spend too much time in the com­pany of ­women.40 Venturing an anthropology of the aesthetic, Kant identifies the French as the most prone to the ridicu­lous (in contrast to the sublime of the British and Japa­nese). It is ­here

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that readers of Kant confront one of his most problematic utterances, his claim that the most irredeemably ridicu­lous are the blacks of sub-­Saharan Africa. Following Hume’s lead, Kant insists that they “have by nature no feeling that rises above the ridicu­lous”: The religion of fetishes which is widespread among them is perhaps a sort of idolatry, which sinks so deeply into the ridicu­lous as ever seems to be pos­si­ble for ­human nature. A bird’s feather, a cow’s horn, a shell, or any other common ­thing, as soon as it is consecrated with some words, is an object of veneration and of invocation in swearing oaths. The blacks are very vain, but in the Negro’s way, and so talkative that they must be driven apart from each other by blows.41

Abhorrent as it is, Kant’s distinction between men and w ­ omen, Germans and Italians, Arabs and Africans, is nevertheless reconceivable in positive terms, not by insisting upon the falsity of the oppositions, but rather, or in addition, by the revaluation of the opposition itself. In other words, an opportunity appears if we are able to remain with Kant long enough to imagine ourselves taking seriously the aesthetics and politics of the ridicu­ lous. What, we should ask, would come of affirming the ridicu­lous over the sublime? What would it mean to abide the absolutely small and hold the absolutely g­ reat in contempt? What if, like Kant’s ridicu­lous Africans, we insisted upon the sacred value of even the most ordinary of t­ hings and renounced all that one would be inclined to describe as noble and just? Like the ethics of the absolutely large, the ethics of the absolutely small begins with an injunction—­not to submit to the transcendent law, but to care for the immanent other. If the first act of the sublime is “re­spect,” the first act of the ridicu­lous is “intimacy.” ­Here, too, we can glimpse a framework for such thinking in the margins of Kant’s thought. Regarding the relationship between individuals of dif­fer­ent sizes (think big men and ­little ­women), Kant writes: “A ­g rand stature earns regard and re­spect, a small one more intimacy.”42 In other words, a politics of the sublime is framed by laws—­transcendent and demanding “regard and re­spect.” Correspondingly, the politics of the ridicu­lous would be a politics constructed of contracts—­immanent and demanding of “intimacy” (small acts of trust). From the former comes universal law and the duty of justice; from the latter comes relational obligations, what anarchists have long referred to as “mutual aid.”


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To better understand the politics of the ridicu­lous, let us return again to the aesthetics of plea­sure. The sublime—­identified by Kant as a “negative plea­sure” b­ ecause it arises “by the feeling of a momentary inhibition of the vital powers and the immediately following and all the more power­ful outpouring of them”43—­requires two conditions: first, a threat of harm to the self (on account of the size or power of the object observed), and second, a feeling of safety (on account of the apprehension that the object observed w ­ ill not, in real­ity, inflict any harm). The sight of events like “thunder clouds towering up into the heavens” and “volcanoes with their all-­destroying vio­lence” press upon us the feeling of utter powerlessness. “But the sight of them only becomes all the more attractive the more fearful it is, as long as we find ourselves in safety, and we gladly call t­hese objects sublime b­ ecause they elevate the strength of our soul above its usual level.”44 The sight of the absolutely small, would thus, as an inverted phenomenon, provoke in us a feeling of absolute power, which is to say, an immediate rush of plea­sure. Then, as is the case with the sublime, t­here comes a second and reverse moment: when one is struck by the awareness of the obligation to do no harm. In this two-­step experience, we find the plea­ sure/obligation pair operating in reverse. In the sublime, the plea­sure comes second; in the ridicu­lous, it comes first. In the sublime, the power of nature is what strikes us initially; in the ridicu­lous, the requirement that we use our power to nurture comes second, only ­after the feeling of plea­sure subsides. Though the clichéd perspective on anarchism identifies it as a cele­ bration of unbridled liberation, it is more properly understood as a fully horizontal collectivity in which the transcendent rule of law is replaced by a collection of immanent contracts. I could point to any number of theorists in support of this claim, but Alex Comfort states it with unique clarity: “It ­will be said that I deny social responsibility. I do not—­I believe that responsibility is boundless. We have boundless responsibility to e­ very person we meet. The foreman owes it to his men not to persecute them— he owes it as a man, not b­ ecause t­here is an abstract power vested in the TUC [British Trades Union Congress] which demands it. Barbarism is a flight from responsibility, an attempt to exercise it ­towards a non-­existent scarecrow rather than to real ­people.”45 Thus does Comfort insist that obligations are inescapably relational, rather than universal, and that they are oriented ­toward the immanent other, not the transcendent law: “[O]ur

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responsibilities are to our fellow men, not to a society.  … We now accept no responsibility to any group, only to individuals.  … ­There are no corporate allegiances. All our politics are atomized.”46 Comfort’s “atomized” politics is a politics of the contract, an affinity-­ based politics in which small acts of  “Vertraulichkeit,” to use Kant’s term, are iteratively expanded in an explic­itly nondialectical and nonuniversalizing fashion. We can gain further purchase on the mechanism by which such contractual relationships are developed by considering the importance of the concept of “the ideal” as esteemed by Kant and renounced by anarchism. H ­ ere, Friedrich Schiller’s reflection on Kant’s aesthetics provides the most direct route: ­ very individual man, it may be said, carries in disposition and determination E a pure ideal man within himself, with whose unalterable unity it is the ­great task of his existence, throughout all his vicissitudes, to harmonize. This pure ­human being, who may be recognized more or less distinctly in e­ very person, is represented by the State, the objective, and, so to say, canonical form in which the diversity of persons endeavours to unity itself.47

In Schiller’s view, freedom arises when the real and the ideal come into alignment, when the individual and the state operate in parallel. In such moments, “the individual becom[es the] State” and “temporal Man” is “raised to the dignity of ideal Man.”48 Against Schiller’s notion of the ideal within the real, the state within the individual, Kropotkin insists upon what we can now recognize clearly as a politics of the ridicu­lous: “The princi­ple of equality sums up the teachings of moralists. But it also contains something more. This something more is re­spect for the individual. By proclaiming our morality of equality, or anarchism, we refuse to assume a right which moralists have always taken upon themselves to claim, that of mutilating the individual in the name of some ideal. We do not recognize this right at all, for ourselves or anyone ­else.”49 Kropotkin’s anarchist politics demands an absolute refusal of the ideal, of the transcendent order that, in Kant, gives shape to the sublime. Kropotkin, like Kant’s Africans, insists that the world is made up of nothing more than bird’s feathers, cow’s horns, and shells—­all of which demand from us a boundless care. As I have noted above, the means by which the ethics of the ridicu­lous is enacted as politics is through the proliferation of contracts. This, too, is


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an anarchist princi­ple of the first order. For Prou­dhon, it was the very means by which government ­will be made obsolete. A contract, as immanent regulation imposed by the parties themselves, imposes no obligation upon the parties, except that which results from their personal promise of reciprocal delivery.” Unlike the law, contracts are “not subject to any external authority.”50 The concatenation of contractual relations establishes a society iteratively, in absence of any supervening ideal or universal: “The system of contracts, substituted for the system of laws, would constitute the true government of the man and of the citizen; the true sovereignty of the ­people, the REPUBLIC.”51 The politics of the ridicu­lous is thus the politics of affirmation, a contractual politics in which the new emerges within the old, not as a violent ­battle for supremacy, but as a gradual displacement of one social arrangement by another. SUNNY DISPOSITION

In connection with my current studies with Duchamp, it turns out that I’m a poor chessplayer. My mind seems in some re­spect lacking, so that I make obviously stupid moves. I do not for a moment doubt that this lack of intelligence affects my m ­ usic and thinking generally. However, I have a redeeming quality: I was gifted with a sunny disposition.52

John Cage’s “sunny disposition”—as well as the suspicion it inspired in the minds of his critics—­ought to remind us of Goldman’s insistence that the dance floor belongs inside the revolution. Even more explic­itly than his pre­de­ces­sor, however, Cage advanced an art and politics of uncompromising affirmation. When asked, for instance in 1978, if he had been active in any of the po­liti­cal movements of the sixties, Cage said he ­hadn’t, and then offered the following explanation: “I w ­ asn’t interested in critical or negative action. I’m not interested in objecting to ­things that are wrong. I’m interested in ­doing something that seems to be useful to do. I ­don’t think critical action is sufficient.”53 Cage’s critique of critique, his rejection of the dialectics of negation, was, in fact, the composer’s fundamental orientation ­toward the world, and would find its most renown, and for some notorious, expression in the claim that listeners ­ought to experience his ­music as “an affirmation of life, not an attempt to bring order out of chaos nor to suggest improvements on creation, but simply a way of waking up to the very life ­we’re living which is so excellent once

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one gets one’s mind and one’s desires out of its way and lets it act of its own accord.”54 Though seemingly a call for a quiescent ac­cep­tance of the world’s misery and barbarism, for Cage, the act of excessive affirmation, is, in fact, the origin of an inescapable obligation to the other. What appears at first to establish a politics of total self-­interest and thus complete indifference ­toward all ­things outside oneself is, for Cage, the foundation of an ethics of infinite care: “Responsibility is to oneself; and the highest form of it is irresponsibility to oneself which is to say the calm ac­cep­tance of what­ever responsibility to o ­ thers and t­ hings comes along.”55 In Kantian terms, Cage’s politics is quite clearly a politics of the ridicu­lous, of an “inclination that is beautiful in itself but which is without self-­control and without princi­ples.”56 To a number of his adherents, such a politics was utterly incomprehensible. Yvonne Rainer, for example, has made it clear that her debt to Cage stops well short of the composer’s call for an art of excessive affirmation. For Rainer, Cage’s “methods of nonhierarchical, indeterminate organ­ izations” are not to be used to “awaken to this excellent life,” but rather, “so we may the more readily awaken to the ways in which we have been led to believe that this life is so excellent, just, and right.”57 Like so many in her generation, Rainer was attuned to Cage’s formal inventions—at least some of them—­but was unmoved by the politics of affirmation on which they w ­ ere developed. Instead, Cage’s work was pressed to the ser­vice of ideology critique and, in the pro­cess, stripped of its most radical implications. Cage was himself an anarchist and identifies the critical year in his po­liti­ cal formation to 1954, the year he moved into the Gate Hill Cooperative in Rockland County, New York. The Coop was founded by anarchists Vera and Paul Williams, both of whom met Cage at Black Mountain College.58 Two years earlier, Cage performed 4′33″, a work that I would argue is exemplary of the anarchist aesthetics of the ridicu­lous. Like the ridicu­lous, 4′33″ is not only small, but absolutely small: the score includes not a single note. Like the ridicu­lous, 4′33″ is “without self-­control and without princi­ple”: it opens itself to any and all sounds produced over the course of the 273 seconds in which the per­for­mance takes place. And like the ridicu­ lous, 4′33″ is contractual and relational: the m ­ usic is performed by listeners as they cough, sneeze, and whisper among themselves. Above all, 4′33″ is


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affirmative in that it permits all sounds to enter into the composition. Nothing is prohibited. ­Every sound is musical, ­every noise aesthetic. Students of Cage’s composition course at the New School for Social Research in New York City practiced an art of affirmation in the mode of the ridicu­lous. Examples include George Brecht’s Drip ­Music (1962), in which the performer pours w ­ ater from one vessel into another; Jackson Mac Low’s Stanzas for Iris Lezak (1960), in which deterministic methods yield poems unmarked by the poet’s intentions; La Monte Young’s Composition #10 (1960), in which the performer is instructed to “draw a straight line and follow it” (itself an exemplary act of nondialectical affirmation, since the line, once drawn, guides the action that follows); and Dick Higgins’s Danger ­Music #15, which directs the performer to “work with eggs and butter for a time.”59 Grasping the implications of works like ­these requires one to set aside Rainer’s insistence that radical art be at all times critical. Likewise it requires one to consider the affirmative aesthetics of the ridicu­lous as dif­ fer­ent still from Buchloh’s call for “mnemonic experience as one of the few acts of re­sis­tance.” Against this variation on Stendhal’s conception of beauty as a promise of happiness (whereby hopeful futurity is replaced by melancholic recollection), the affirmative art of Cage, Mac Low, Higgins, and o ­ thers begins with Ward’s anarchist proposal that “the society in which you would r­ eally like to live was already h ­ ere.” Ward’s proposal, like Landauer’s, Day’s, and Cage’s, is not to critique, but to shrink—to become small enough to comprehend the ridicu­lous. This is to say that ­there exists an aesthetic peculiar to anarchism, and its main properties can be located in the margins of Kant’s aesthetic, despite the fact that Kant himself was utterly dismissive of what ­these margins contain. The aesthetic peculiar to anarchism is that of the absolutely small, the ridicu­lous (or, as the German is sometimes translated, trifling).60 Where the sublime is the aesthetic that attends the feeling of Law in its awesome power and universal dominion, the ridicu­lous is the aesthetic that attends the feeling of the contract in its small scale and its requirement that the participants act willingly and with care. The aesthetic of the ridicu­lous also operates gradually, through expansion, and stands opposed to the vio­lence at the core of the critical enterprise. At odds with critique’s program of expose-­and-­destroy, the ridicu­lous is founded on a program of discover-­ and-­cultivate. It is not, however, without its own risks. That which begins

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its life as a trifling ­will surely strug­gle to grow into something substantial. The waiting may be excruciating. Nevertheless, in its opposition to the politics of critique, a politics that appears to have, as Latour put it, “run out of steam,” it at least offers an alternative directive, albeit one demanding a patience of perhaps impossible dimension. NOTES

1. ​“What if explanations resorting automatically to power, society, discourse had outlived their usefulness and deteriorated to the point of now feeding the most gullible sort of critique?” Bruno Latour, “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam? From ­Matters of Fact to M ­ atters of Concern,” Critical Inquiry 30, no. 2 (Winter 2004): 229–230. 2. ​Sedgwick articulated her concern thusly: “[T]he very productive critical habits embodied in what Paul Ricoeur memorably called the ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’—­widespread critical habits indeed, perhaps by now nearly synonymous with criticism itself—­may have had an unintentionally stultifying side-­effect: they may have made it less rather than more pos­si­ble to unpack the local, contingent relations between any given piece of knowledge and its narrative/epistemological entailments for the seeker, knower, or teller.” Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, or, ­You’re So Paranoid, You Prob­ably Think This Introduction Is about You,” in Novel Gazing: Queer Readings in Fiction, ed. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997), 4. 3. ​Sedgwick, “Paranoid Reading,” 1–2. 4. ​Other significant voices in the affirmative mode include Karen Barad, Jane Bennett, Rosi Braidotti, William Connolly, and Eugene Holland. See Karen, Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of M ­ atter and Meaning (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007); Jane Bennett, Vibrant ­Matter: A Po­liti­cal Ecol­ogy of ­Things (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010); Rosi Braidotti, Nomadic Theory: The Portable Rosi Braidotti (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011); William Connolly, A World of Becoming (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011); and Eugene Holland, Nomad Citizenship: Free-­Market Communism and the Slow-­Motion General Strike (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010). For a collection of postcritical reflections on con­temporary art, see Pamela Fraser and Roger Rothman, eds., Beyond Critique: Con­temporary Art in Theory, Practice, and Instruction (London: Bloomsbury, 2017). 5. ​“My argument is that a certain form of critical spirit has sent us down the wrong path, encouraging us to fight the wrong enemies and, worst of all, to be considered as friends by the wrong sort of allies b­ ecause of a ­little m ­ istake in the definition of its main target. The question was never to get away from facts but closer to them, not fighting empiricism but, on the contrary, renewing empiricism.” Latour, “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?” 231.


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6. ​“[T]o read from a reparative position is to surrender the knowing, anxious paranoid determination that no horror, however apparently unthinkable, s­hall ever come to the reader as new: to a reparatively positioned reader, it can seem realistic and necessary to experience surprise. B ­ ecause ­there can be terrible surprises, however, ­there can also be good ones. Hope, often a fracturing, even a traumatic ­thing to experience, is among the energies by which the reparatively positioned reader tries to or­ga­nize the fragments and part-­objects she encounters or creates.” Sedgwick, “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading,” 24. 7. ​For a related use of the term “affirmative,” see Stephen White, Sustaining Affirmation: The Strengths of Weak Ontology in Po­liti­cal Theory (Prince­ton, NJ: Prince­ton University Press, 2000). 8. ​Hal Foster, “Post-­Critical,” October 139 (Winter 2012): 7. 9. ​Herbert Marcuse, One-­Dimensional Man (Boston: Beacon, 1964), 253. 10. ​Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, trans. Robert Hullot-­Kentor (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), 194. 11. ​Benjamin Buchloh, Neo-­Avantgarde and Culture Industry: Essays on Eu­ro­pean and American Art from 1955 to 1975 (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000), xxv. Buchloh’s use of the term “spectacularization” derives from Guy Debord’s “Society of the Spectacle.” Debord’s conception of the Situationist International as a proj­ect committed to the critique of capitalism in the age of the spectacle is emblematic of the critical enterprise outlined ­here and against which theorists like Sedgwick and Latour established their postcritical alternatives. 12. ​Scarry: “[I]n periods when a h ­ uman community is too young to have yet had time to create justice, as well as in periods when justice has been taken away, beautiful ­things (which do not rely on us to create them but come on their own and have never been absent from a h ­ uman community) hold steadily vis­i­ble the manifest good of equality and balance.” Elaine Scarry, On Beauty and Being Just (Prince­ton, NJ: Prince­ton University Press, 1999), 66. 13. ​Rancière (rephrasing Schiller): “[T]­here exists a specific sensory experience—­ the aesthetic—­that holds the promise of both a new world of Art and a new life for individuals and the community.” Jacques Rancière, “The Aesthetic Revolution and Its Outcomes,” New Left Review 14 (March/April 2002): 133. 14. ​Peter Kropotkin, Kropotkin’s Revolutionary Pamphlets, ed. Roger Baldwin (New York: Dover, 1970), 136–37. 15. ​Richard Day, Gramsci Is Dead: Anarchist Currents in the Newest Social Movements (Toronto: Pluto, 2005), 8, 15. 16. ​Gustav Landauer, Revolution and Other Writings, A Po­liti­cal Reader, trans. Gabriel Kuhn (Oakland, CA: PM, 2010), 214.

Absolutely Small 187 17. ​Mikhail Bakunin, “Statism and Anarchism,” The Anarchist Library, trans. Sam Dolgoff, 1971, https://­­bakunin​-­statism​ -­and-­anarchy. That said, the influence of Hegel on Bakunin is incontrovertible, as evidenced, perhaps most vividly, in his declaration, “The passion for destruction is a creative passion, too!” Mikhail Bakunin, “The Reaction in Germany,” in Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, Volume One: From Anarchy to Anarchism (300CE to 1939), ed. Robert Graham, (Montreal: Black Rose Books, 2005), 44. 18. ​Karl Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1955), 168. 19. ​See Duane Rousselle and Süreyyya Evren, Post-­Anarchism: A Reader (London: Pluto, 2011). 20. ​Todd May, The Po­liti­cal Philosophy of Poststructuralist Anarchism (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994), 10–11. 21. ​May, Po­liti­cal Philosophy of Poststructuralist Anarchism, 54–55. 22. ​Landauer, Revolution and Other Writings, 214. 23. ​Martin Buber, Paths in Utopia, trans. R.F.C. Hull (Boston: Beacon, 1949). 24. ​Colin Ward, Anarchy in Action (London: Freedom, 1973), 18. Ward dedicated Anarchy in Action to Paul Goodman, who had died the year earlier. In light of the per­sis­tent misconception of anarchism as a philosophy of disorder, it is perhaps worth mentioning that Ward initially proposed that his book be titled “Anarchism as a theory of organ­ization” (7). 25. ​Ward, Anarchy in Action, 131. See also Jesse Cohn’s reading of the anarchist proj­ ect as “elaborated through theories of historical change that dissolved the absolute opposition between sudden po­liti­cal ‘revolution’ and gradual social ‘evolution.’ ” Jesse Cohn, Anarchism and the Crisis of Repre­sen­ta­tion (Selinsgrove, PA: Susquehanna University Press, 2006), 241. For early anarchists like Reclus and Malatesta, revolution and evolution ­were “­really only the same phenomenon taking place at dif­fer­ ent speeds.  … As Arendt points out, it was Prou­dhon, not Trotsky, who coined the term ‘révolution en permanence.’ By speaking of the revolution as a permanent state of affairs, he put a distance between the Jacobin notion of a final and definitive overturning of social relations and a far less foreseeable evolutionary/revolutionary pro­ cess, a never-­complete progrès ­toward a f­uture that is always other” (241). 26. ​David Graeber reiterates Ward’s invocation of per­sis­tent gradualism: “What ­will [the anarchist revolution] be, then? … A revolution on a world scale ­will take a very long time. But it is also pos­si­ble to recognize that it is already starting to happen. The easiest way to get our minds around it is to stop thinking about revolution as a ­thing—­‘the’ revolution, the ­g reat cataclysmic break—­and instead ask ‘what is revolutionary action?’ We could then suggest: revolutionary action is any collective action which rejects, and ­there confronts, some form of power or


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domination and in ­doing so, reconstitutes social relations—­even within the collectivity—in that light.” David Graeber, Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology (Chicago: Prickly Paradigm, 2006), 45. 27. ​Landauer, Revolution and Other Writings, 46. 28. ​For Goldman’s influence on the American avant-­garde, see Allan Antliff, Anarchist Modernism: Art, Politics, and the First American Avant-­Garde (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001). 29. ​Emma Goldman, “Living My Life,” The Anarchist Library, 1931, https://­­goldman-­living-­my-­life.pdf. 30. ​Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, 14. 31. ​Immanuel Kant, Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and the Sublime and Other Writings, eds. Patrick Frierson and Paul Guyer (Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 22. 32. ​Kant, Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful, 23. Critique of the Power of Judgment includes a similar identification of the sublime with the virtue of duty: “The consciousness of virtue, when one puts oneself, even if only in thought, in the place of a virtuous person, spreads in the mind a multitude of sublime and calming feelings, and a boundless prospect into a happy ­future, which no expression that is adequate to a determinate concept fully captures.” Immanuel Kant, Critique of the Power of Judgment, ed. Paul Guyer, trans. Paul Guyer and Eric Matthews (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 194. 33. ​Kant, Critique of the Power of Judgment, 132. Kant introduces the “absolutely ­great” in Critique of the Power of Judgment. In Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and the Sublime and Other Writings, he simply identifies the sublime as large: “The sublime must always be large, the beautiful can also be small.” Kant, Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful, 17. 34. ​“Duty!—­you sublime, ­grand name which encompasses nothing that is favored yet involves ingratiation, but which demands submission.” Immanuel Kant, Critique of Practical Reason, trans. Werner S. Pluhar (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2002), 87. 35. ​Kant, Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful, 133. Kant’s contempt [Verachtung] for the absolutely small has its roots in Augustine’s Contemptus mundi, itself an indication of Kant’s long debt to the legacy of Platonic Idealism and the concomitant denigration of the material world. I thank Gary Steiner for alerting me to this aspect of Kant’s thought. 36. ​Kant, 40. H ­ ere Kant uses the word “das Lächerliche.” Throughout most of Observations, however, Kant’s preferred term for “the ridicu­lous” is “das Läppische.” It appears more than a dozen times, at least once in each of the book’s four sections.

Absolutely Small 189 37. ​Derrida, for instance, describes their relationship as follows: “One can hardly speak of an opposition between the beautiful and the sublime. An opposition could only arise between two determinate objects, having their contours, their edges, their finitude. But if the difference between the beautiful and the sublimes does not amount to an opposition, it is precisely b­ ecause the presence of a limit is what gives form to the beautiful.” Jacques Derrida, The Truth in Painting, trans. Geoff Bennington and Ian McLeod (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 127. 38. ​Kant, Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful, 21. 39. ​Kant, 24. 40. ​Kant, 22, 48. 41. ​Kant, 58. 42. ​Kant, 20. 43. ​Kant, Critique of the Power of Judgment, 128–129. 44. ​Kant, 144. 45. ​Alex Comfort, “Art and Social Responsibility,” in Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, Volume Two: The Emergence of the New Anarchism (1939–1977), ed. Robert Graham (Montreal: Black Rose Books, 2009), 105. 46. ​Comfort, “Art and Social Responsibility,” 106. 47. ​Friedrich Schiller, Letters upon the Aesthetic Education of Man, trans. Reginald Snell (New York: Dover, 2004), 31. 48. ​Schiller, Letters upon the Aesthetic Education of Man, 32. Terry Ea­gleton’s Ideology of the Aesthetic offers the most direct critique of Schiller’s aesthetic as ideological mystification of bourgeois hegemony. Terry Ea­gleton, The Ideology of the Aesthetic (Cambridge: Oxford University Press, 1981), 102–119. Jacques Rancière’s proj­ ect is founded on recuperating Schiller’s aesthetic from critiques like t­hose of Ea­gleton. See Rancière, “The Aesthetic Revolution and Its Outcomes,” 133. 49. ​Kropotkin, Revolutionary Pamphlets, 105. 50. ​Pierre-­Joseph Prou­dhon, “The General Idea of the Revolution,” in Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, Volume One: From Anarchy to Anarchism (300CE to 1939), ed. Robert Graham (Montreal: Black Rose Books, 2005), 53. 51. ​Prou­dhon, “The General Idea of the Revolution,” 55. Italics and caps in original. 52. ​John Cage, AYear From Monday (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1969), x. 53. ​Richard Kostelanetz, Conversing with Cage (London: Routledge, 2003), 292. 54. ​Richard Kostelanetz, John Cage (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1970), 51. 55. ​John Cage, Silence (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1961), 139.


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56. ​Kant, Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful, 24. 57. ​Yvonne Rainer, “Looking Myself in the Mouth,” in John Cage, ed. Julia Robinson (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2011), 38. 58. ​Mark Antliff, “Situating Freedom: Jackson Mac Low, John Cage, and Donald Judd,” Anarchist Developments in Cultural Studies 2 (2011): 54. 59. ​Young, unlike Brecht, Mac Low, and Higgins, had not been a student in Cage’s classes, but did serve as teaching assistant to Richard Maxfield when Maxfield took over Cage’s course in 1960. Jeremy Grimshaw, Draw a Straight Line and Follow It:The ­Music and Mysticism of La MonteYoung (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 57. 60. ​“Trifling” is John Goldthwait’s preferred translation for “läppisch.” Though quaint-­sounding t­ oday, it has two qualities to recommend it over “ridicu­lous.” First, it has a scalar connotation that associates it with the small and thus with Kant’s own conception of the ridicu­lous as “absolutely small.” Second, “trifling” was a term frequently used by Hume in his own aesthetic reflections—­reflections that ­were of foundational significance to Kant. See Immanuel Kant, Observations on the Feeling of the Sublime, trans. John T. Goldthwait (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1960). For an analy­sis of the gendered aesthetics at work in Hume’s critique of what he called “trifling pastimes,” see Monique Roelofs, The Cultural Promise of the Aesthetic (London: Bloomsbury, 2014), 63. BIBLIOGRAPHY

Adorno, Theodor. Aesthetic Theory. Translated by Robert Hullot-­Kentor. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997. Adorno, Theodor. “Commitment.” In Aesthetics and Politics, 177–195. Translated by Francis McDonagh. London: Verso, 1977. Antliff, Allan. Anarchist Modernism: Art, Politics, and the First American Avant-­Garde. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001. Antliff, Allan. “Situating Freedom: Jackson Mac Low, John Cage, and Donald Judd.” Anarchist Developments in Cultural Studies 2 (2011): 39–57. Bakunin, Mikhail. “Statism and Anarchism.” In The Anarchist Library. Translated by Sam Dolgoff. 1971. https://­​-baku​nin​ -­statism-­and-­anarchy. Bakunin, Mikhail. “The Reaction in Germany.” In Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, Volume One: From Anarchy to Anarchism (300CE to 1939), edited by Robert Graham. Montreal: Black Rose Books, 2005. Barad, Karen. Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of ­Matter and Meaning. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007. Bennett, Jane. Vibrant ­Matter: A Po­liti­cal Ecol­ogy of ­Things. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010.

Absolutely Small 191 Braidotti, Rosi. Nomadic Theory: The Portable Rosi Braidotti. New York: Columbia University Press, 2011. Buber, Martin. Paths in Utopia. Translated by R. F. C. Hull. Boston: Beacon, 1949. Buchloh, Benjamin. Neo-­Avantgarde and Culture Industry: Essays on Eu­ro­pean and American Art from 1955 to 1975. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000. Cage, John. AYear from Monday. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1969. Cage, John. Silence. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1961. Cohn, Jesse. Anarchism and the Crisis of Repre­sen­ta­tion. Selinsgrove, PA: Susquehanna University Press, 2006. Comfort, Alex. “Art and Social Responsibility.” In Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, Volume Two: The Emergence of the New Anarchism (1939– 1977), edited by Robert Graham. Montreal: Black Rose Books, 2009. Connolly, William. A World of Becoming. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011. Day, Richard. Gramsci Is Dead: Anarchist Currents in the Newest Social Movements. Toronto: Pluto, 2005. Derrida, Jacques. The Truth in Painting. Translated by Geoff Bennington and Ian McLeod. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987. Ea­gleton, Terry. The Ideology of the Aesthetic. Cambridge: Oxford University Press, 1981. Felski, Rita. The Limits of Critique. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015. Foster, Hal. “Post-­Critical.” October 139 (Winter 2012): 3–8. Fraser, Pamela, and Roger Rothman, eds. Beyond Critique: Con­temporary Art in Theory, Practice, and Instruction. London: Bloomsbury, 2017. Goldman, Emma. “Living My Life.” The Anarchist Library. 1931. https://­the​­goldman-­living-­my-­life.pdf. Graeber, David. Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm, 2006. Grimshaw, Jeremy. Draw a Straight Line and Follow It: The M ­ usic and Mysticism of La Monte Young. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. Holland, Eugene. Nomad Citizenship: Free-­Market Communism and the Slow-­Motion General Strike. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010. Joseph, Branden. Beyond the Dream Syndicate: Tony Conrad and the Arts ­after Cage. New York: Zone Books, 2008. Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Practical Reason. Translated by Werner S. Pluhar. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2002.


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Kant, Immanuel. Critique of the Power of Judgment, edited by Paul Guyer, translated Paul Guyer and Eric Matthews. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Kant, Immanuel. Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and the Sublime and Other Writings. Edited by Patrick Frierson and Paul Guyer. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011. Kant, Immanuel. Observations on the Feeling of the Sublime. Translated by John T. Goldthwait. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1960. Kostelanetz, Richard. Conversing with Cage. London: Routledge, 2003. Kostelanetz, Richard. John Cage. New York: Praeger Publishers, 1970. Kropotkin, Peter. Kropotkin’s Revolutionary Pamphlets. Edited by Roger Baldwin. New York: Dover, 1970. Landauer, Gustav. “Call to Socialism.” The Anarchist Library. 1911. https://­­landauer-­call-­to-­socialism.pdf. Landauer, Gustav. Revolution and Other Writings, A Po­liti­cal Reader. Translated by Gabriel Kuhn. Oakland, CA: PM, 2010. Latour, Bruno. “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam? From ­Matters of Fact to ­Matters of Concern.” Critical Inquiry 30, no. 2 (Winter 2004): 225–248. Marcuse, Herbert. One-­Dimensional Man. Boston: Beacon, 1964. Marx, Karl. The Poverty of Philosophy. Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1955. May, Todd. The Po­liti­cal Philosophy of Poststructuralist Anarchism. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994. Prou­dhon, Pierre-­Joseph. “The General Idea of the Revolution.” In Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, Volume One: From Anarchy to Anarchism (300CE to 1939), edited by Robert Graham. Montreal: Black Rose Books, 2005. Rainer, Yvonne. “Looking Myself in the Mouth.” In John Cage, edited by Julia Robinson. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2011. Rancière, Jacques. “The Aesthetic Revolution and its Outcomes.” New Left Review 14 (March/April 2002): 133–151. Roelofs, Monique. The Cultural Promise of the Aesthetic. London: Bloomsbury, 2014. Rousselle, Duane, and Süreyyya Evren. Post-­Anarchism: A Reader. London: Pluto, 2011. Scarry, Elaine. On Beauty and Being Just. Prince­ton, NJ: Prince­ton University Press, 1999.

Absolutely Small 193 Schiller, Friedrich. Letters upon the Aesthetic Education of Man. Translated by Reginald Snell. New York: Dover, 2004. Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, or, Y ­ ou’re So Paranoid, You Prob­ably Think This Introduction Is about You.” In Novel Gazing: Queer Readings in Fiction, edited by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, 1–37. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997. Ward, Colin. Anarchy in Action. London: Freedom, 1973. White, Stephen. Sustaining Affirmation: The Strengths of Weak Ontology in Po­liti­cal Theory. Prince­ton, NJ: Prince­ton University Press, 2000.


How does one judge something to be alien? What does it look like? What does it sound, feel, taste like? How do we know the alien when we encounter it? What tools do we have to make such a judgment? Aesthetics is a cognitive tool. If we understand aesthetics as the transformation of sensation to cognition, then aesthetics cannot exist without cognitive capacity; for aesthetics to operate, ­there needs to be both sensing of stimulus and cognition of it. Aesthetics is a cognitive pro­cess; it is an example of concept formation. It is this capacity to form and be formed by concepts that is at the core of the alienation proposed by Laboria Cuboniks in their 2015 manifesto Xenofeminism: A Politics for Alienation.1 The manifesto articulates a feminism adequate to the conditions of complexity and abstraction in an era of global capitalism and that alienation is a productive force, a necessary force for the construction of a better ­future. We as a species are shifting both what we are and what we understand intelligence to be. We are coding what we w ­ ill become, and it is essential that we do not write into that code the naturalized bad habits that have been prevalent for centuries, like power inequity based on race, class, or gender (garbage in/garbage out or “GIGO”2  ). But how do we know what is alien and how do we know which is the alien we want over the one we ­don’t? Is this in part an aesthetic judgment? An impor­tant distinction must be made between “an aesthetic” when “aesthetic” is used to speak about what something looks like, and aesthetics as described above, as an example of concept formation via sensation. They are linked but not the same. Much of the work done ­under the name Xenofeminism (hereafter XF), the website, videos, or the manifesto itself,


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for example, have an aesthetic, meaning choices have been made so the work looks/feels/sounds a par­tic­u­lar way. The aesthetic qualities of much of the work done ­under the name XF should not however, be confused with aesthetics as a pro­cess of cognition and the conceptual links with alienation as it is spoken about in XF. XF avows alienation as a productive force t­ oward h ­ uman emancipation. The manifesto says this: “XF seizes alienation as an impetus to generate new worlds. We are all alienated—­but have we ever been other­wise? It is through, and not despite, our alienated condition that we can ­free ourselves from the muck of immediacy. Freedom is not a given—­and it’s certainly not given by anything “natu­ral.” The construction of freedom involves not less but more alienation; alienation is the ­labour of freedom’s construction.”3 ­There are risks in using the term alienation. Attempting to reclaim, and in some ways redefine, a word that has so much weight in both the history of po­liti­cal thought as well as common parlance is no small task. ­There are ways to understand the term that, while somewhat counter­ intuitive, can be helpful in laying ground for new concept construction. This is not the construction of novelty for novelty’s sake; rather it is the construction of the new necessitated by insidious and toxic norms that preserve power imbalances across the globe based on race, gender, and economic standing that need to be eradicated. So what is meant by alienation in XF? In the first instance, alienation is a relational term: something or someone is alienated from something or someone e­ lse. As the manifesto says, “We are all alienated. Have we ever been other­wise?”4 This assertion captures the argument that as ­humans we are estranged from our biology b­ ecause of our capacity for cognition and reason. This estrangement is at the core of what a productive alienation is. As long as we have been sapient, we have been alienated, alienated from the forces of biology that we are subject to, in part ­because we can think about both ­these forces and their consequences as concepts. The impor­tant distinction to be made to help clarify this point is between sapience and sentience. Sapience is the ­human ability to use reason, to both reflect and consciously act on their world and by extension to construct it, while a sentient being is one that has awareness of their surroundings but not necessarily the capacity to deliberately reflect and act on it as a result of that reflection. The sapience-­sentience distinction is impor­tant to XF ­because

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the capacities that sapience affords us are the primary source of our productive alienation. Robert Brandom outlines the distinction thus: What is the crucial difference between the red-­discriminating parrot and the genuine observer of red t­ hings? It is the difference between sapience and sentience.  … Candidates for observational knowledge d­ on’t just have reliable dispositions to respond differentially to stimuli by making noises, but have reliable dispositions to respond differentially to ­those stimuli by applying concepts. The genuine observer responds to vis­i­ble red ­things by coming to believe, claiming or reporting that ­there is something red, … that the sapient being responsively classifies the stimuli as falling u ­ nder concepts, as being of some “conceptually articulated kind” rather than “mere differential responsiveness.”5

That is to say sapience is the h ­ uman ability to apply concepts. It is the ­ uman capacity for reason, and the capacity to make judgments like “it h ­ought to be like this and not that.” Arguments can be made that some nonhuman animals also have a level of sapience, but the principal point h ­ ere is that ­humans demonstrate a capacity for a par­tic­ul­ar level of complex thinking and abstraction that is not evidenced by most other animals. The differentiation between sapience and sentience can be found in the following short parable written by horror fiction writer Thomas Liggoti in his book The Conspiracy against the H ­ uman Race, though his conclusion as to what to do with this break is contrary to the XF position. He suggests that we do our best despite this break, whereas XF’s claim is that this split enables ­humans to form concepts and as a consequence do more than just react to their environment. The break Liggoti speaks about is foundational for the emancipatory alienation endorsed by XF. For ages they had been without lives of their own. The w ­ hole of their being was open to the world and nothing divided them from the rest of creation. How long they had thus flourished none of them knew. Then something began to change. It happened over unremembered generations. The signs of a revision, without forewarning ­were being writ ever more deeply into them. As their species moved forward, they began crossing bound­aries whose very existence they never i­magined. A ­ fter nightfall, they looked up at a sky filled with stars and felt themselves small and fragile in the vastness. Soon they began to see every­thing in a way they never had in older times. When they found one of their own lying still and stiff, they now stood around the body as if ­there ­were something they should do that they had never done before. It was then they began to take bodies that w ­ ere still and stiff to distant places so they


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could not find their way back to them. But even a­ fter they had done this, some within their group did see t­hose bodies again, often standing s­ilent in the moonlight or loitering sad-­faced just beyond the glow of a fire. Every­thing changes once they had lives of their own and knew they had lives of their own. It even became impossible for them to believe t­ hings had ever been any other way. They w ­ ere masters of their movements now, as it seemed and never had ­there been anything like them. The epoch had passed when the w ­ hole of their being was open to the world and nothing divided them from the rest of creation. Something had happened. They did not know what it was, but they did know it as that which should not be. And something needed to be done if they ­were to flourish as they once had, if the very ground beneath their feet ­were not to fall out from u ­ nder them. For ages they had been without lives of their own. Now that they had such lives, t­here was no turning back. The ­whole of their being was closed to the world and they had been divided from the rest of creation. Nothing could be done about that, having as they did, lives of their own. But something would have to be done if they w ­ ere to live with that which should not be. And over time they discovered what could be done—­what would have to be done—so that they could live the lives that ­were now theirs to live. This would not revive among them the way t­ hings had once been done in older times; it would only be the best they could do.6

This fable is useful in that it narrativizes the alienation produced by ­ uman self-­awareness. It distinguishes the h h ­ uman as a “concept monger” from the ­human as purely reactive animal, estranged from the latter precisely by the capacity to form and comprehend concepts.7 This capacity to know that we know (or to know that we d­ on’t know), to be aware of our knowing and indeed question that knowing, and, as Ligotti puts it, to have lives of our own, is both a form of alienation and a form of emancipation. The fable describes this as a split, the alienation of sapience from sentience. To be clear: this is not a personal alienation felt by one ­human. It is a developmental split of a species, a capacity that emerged, making us what we are. It is ­humans shifting from one ­thing to another. In contrast to XF, Ligotti laments this division, calling it “that which should not be” and claiming that we do our best despite it. XF takes this split to be a means to access what we could be (and what we could become) as a species. We have the capacities we do ­because of this alienation, ­because we know about our knowing. To be clear, however, the distinction between sapience and sentience is not a binary split. Sapience is not an on/off condition but in a continuum with sentience. ­Humans did not leave b­ ehind nonconceptualized knowing

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developed over millennia but rather mix prelinguistic knowing with the ability to comprehend abstract knowledge. An example of prelinguistic knowing would be a cat that knows precisely when to jump to catch a bird. The cat knows that, to be successful, it needs to jump to the spot where the bird ­will be in the f­uture, in a fraction of a second.8 The cat does not think about this as a concept; it does not think about its capacity for predicting the f­ uture. But the cat nonetheless has a kind of “knowing,” and it is a kind of knowing that is still available to ­humans. However, in addition, ­humans have also developed calculus, a way to understand where something ­will be in the f­uture at scales beyond the experiential. ­Humans can know where a planet ­will be at a precise moment so the gravitational force of that planet can be used as a slingshot for a spacecraft.9 The development of calculus enables a kind of knowing that is accurate and testable yet beyond the scale of direct phenomenological experience. This does not mean that the other kind of knowing is no longer useful, but the capacity to comprehend abstraction is an estrangement that enables a level of complexity that would be other­wise unavailable. This is the alienation that is avowed in XF. Ligotti may be using poetic license when he speaks about that which should not be, referring to ­humans being aware of their selves and their finitude, as if the preconceptual was a state worth returning to. The sapience/ sentience distinction can be seen in this fable; however, the position XF takes around this could not be more dif­fer­ent. XF is opposed to reverence for a nature or some purported natu­ral way that needs to be maintained. XF is not opposed to “nature” (what would that even mean?) or the study of the natu­ral world. A broad interrogation of the natu­ral world through a range of disciplines is an essential part of understanding our (­human’s) place in the universe and how we can better construct a ­future both for our species as well as t­ hose with whom we share the planet. XF recognizes both ­humans as well as their capacities as an extension of nature. This includes their technology, both language and material technology, as well as their capacity for aesthetics, again meaning the capacity to construct concepts from sensation. According to Carl Sagan, we are a means by which the universe can know itself: “We are the local embodiment of a Cosmos grown to self-­awareness. We have begun to contemplate our origins: starstuff pondering the stars; or­ga­nized assemblages of ten billion billion atoms considering the evolution of atoms; tracing the long journey by which, ­here at least, consciousness arose.”10


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Sagan identifies how material natu­ral pro­cesses lead to the emergence of a sapience that by which the totality of t­hose material processes—­the Universe—­knows of its own material conditions and pro­cesses. To return to the sapient/sentient divide, stimulus perceived by a being that is sentient but does not have the capacity for sapience would just be stimulus, not an aesthetic experience; or as Brandom put it above, the sapient must take stimulus to be “of some conceptually articulated kind” rather than “mere differential responsiveness.” Aesthetics requires sapience to function as aesthetics. Aesthetics cannot exist without the capacity for cognition. If a person has an experience that is completely alien to them, they do not know what to make of the stimulus; they cannot construct a cohesive meaning from it. Nonetheless, the judgment of it as alien attributes it with meaning, even if the meaning is “I do not know what this means,” and it can thus still be considered an aesthetic experience. Alienation in this case resides not in the sensory experience of confusion or fear or revulsion; it is in the judgment of it being alien. The meaning of a par­tic­u­lar aesthetic does not need to be clear for it to have an aesthetic quality. It can be “I ­don’t know what this means” or “This is alien to me and my previous experience,” but that is still a judgment and it is in the capacity for judgment that something can be aesthetic. The alienation spoken about in XF resides not in this personal experience but in the capacity to make the judgment in the first place. The capacity to judge something as aesthetic is a product of what XF calls alienation, which is not simply the judgment by me of something not like me—­that is, alien—­but an aesthetic experience is the pro­cess of having a way to map meaning on to the experience of  “not me.” So it’s not a situation where t­ here is subject and object, and the subject judges an object as alien to itself based on sensory experience of said object. Rather, the alienation XF calls productive is the pro­cess by which the subject has the capacity to judge the object as alien. The subject is already alienated from itself as an a priori condition of understanding the object as alien at all. So the alienation referred to in XF deals more with the conditions by which aesthetic experience is pos­si­ble rather than the specifics of an aesthetic, how something can be aesthetic and not just the stimulus itself. But what does it look like? What something looks/sounds/feels like certainly ­matters but it is of course only part of the story. ­There is an equivalence between the operation of aesthetics and the operation of alienation advocated in XF. This is not to say that something needs to look “weird”

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or “alien” to induce this alienation. What “weird” means would only be based on a localized judgment of something out of the ordinary. It is, however, impor­tant to be clear about the distinction between aesthetics, the pro­cess by which stimulus becomes cognition, and an aesthetic, the specific look or feel of something. The point of interest regarding alienation h ­ ere is in the pro­cess of sense making, not in the fact that something looks weird. Encountering the new, however, does have the propensity for inducing more alienation than the banal or familiar, not ­because of the feeling of unease it may or may not produce in the viewer, but ­because the pro­cess of cognition potentially takes more l­abor. It takes more thinking; more is involved in the construction of it as a concept. The options available to such a thinking are: (a) Conceptualize what is new as an alien ­thing. ­Because one already has a concept of alien ­thing, it would be no dif­fer­ent than recognizing a familiar t­hing. Or (b) use a synthetic pro­cess of concept construction, taking bits of other concepts to assem­ble a new concept via cognition. The latter is the version that indeed takes more work and is more productive; nonetheless both are the result of the kind of alienation XF espouses. In the case of the latter, more complex thinking, indeed conceptual construction, is involved in making a judgment. That pro­cess in turn can open further capacities for production of the new. New ideas d­ on’t come out of a vacuum. They tend to have pre­ce­dence and proceed in increments. It is this pro­cess of cognition of the new, in turn producing the new, that is similar in kind to the pro­cess that exists as a condition of both aesthetics and alienation. In the words of the XF manifesto, “Alienation is the l­abor of freedom’s construction.” Cognition of the new is an example of this. This propensity for the construction of the new happens across disciplines of course and is not limited to aesthetics. But looking to art, traditionally speaking the dominion of aesthetics, it is pos­si­ble to elaborate how productive alienation as aesthetic pro­cess is a condition for the production of the new. The epistemic methodologies at play in a studio practice, the way thinking happens in the production of an art work, may in turn be useful for other fields also interested in the construction of the new. Artists make aesthetic decisions all the time. T ­ here needs to be a fluency in aesthetic language, and understanding how the sensory ­will be translated into cognition, a feel for how this happens, and for how one produces specific stimulus to achieve a desired effect. The production of an artwork involves two kinds of thinking: sensory and cognitive. By sensory I mean


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the pro­cess by which ­things get made. It is a libidinal force; it comes out of a compulsion to see/hear or even know something, or how this t­hing that you already know fits or ­doesn’t fit with that ­thing you ­don’t know but have a hunch about. Desire and intuition drive this kind of thinking, not cognition. But of course cognitive capacity is just as essential in the construction of an artwork. It is what allows you to make your judgments and to do anything with the results of your intuitions; it is cognition that enables the next steps. The pro­cess is an intimate oscillation between sensing, having hunches, acting, making judgments, and acting again. A capacity to oscillate between the libidinal drive to see/hear/know something and cognitive capacity to make sense of it is an essential part of the production pro­cess. To illustrate this, ­here are basic instructions for making an artwork:   1.  Making something you want to see/hear/sense/know/­etc.   2.  Recognize how it operates via your capacity for cognition   3.  Alter artwork 4A.  Repeat u ­ ntil desired effect is achieved, or 4B.  Abandon the work and start over The pro­cess by which aesthetics happens, this pro­cess of stimulus transformed to cognition, is akin to the pro­cess by which alienation happens, and operating in this feedback loop is core to the production of an art work. The reason artists are specialist in aesthetics is not necessarily ­because of an aptitude for visual language (though that helps) but an aptitude for the oscillation between sensing and cognition. ­There is a need for this operational loop of cognition and revision in both the production of aesthetic objects or experiences and the productive form of alienation that XF advocates. The call for more alienation in XF is however not with a view to the production of aesthetic objects, rather it is made with a view to the construction of a more just and adequate politics, a politics that would eliminate the tendency for Power to claim nature as a justification for injustices and systemic abuse of ­those not in power. The necessity of lateral thinking and feedback loops, the capacity to assess what is in front of you and understand how to make the next step based not on a narrow line of thinking, but on a broad capacity for cognition of potentially unfamiliar stimuli, is constitutive of the kind of

Aesthetics as Alienation 203

thinking that ­ought to be foundational to an artistic practice. It is in this understanding of an artistic practice that art can perhaps be most useful for politics. It can provide a model of thinking that includes lateral transdisciplinary promiscuity and has a par­tic­u­lar capacity for new concept construction, both essential for the substantial upgrade of our po­liti­cal models, updates that are much needed and long overdue. NOTES

1. ​Lacoria Cuboniks is a working group of six ­women based in five countries who met in Berlin during a philosophy event held at Haus der Kunturen der Welt called “Emancipation as Navigation: From the Space of Reason to the Space of Freedoms” in the summer of 2014. It was in this context that XF was born with a view to understanding, articulating, and shaping a feminism commensurate to the early twenty-­first ­century. The name is an anagram of Nicolas Bourbaki, which was a pseudonym of a group of mid-­twentieth-­century mathematicians. The authors of the XF manifesto have differing specialisms and take dif­fer­ent positions on some the content within the manifesto. It is an antidogmatic proj­ect and is in part a practice of developing a force cohesive enough to hold together yet also flexible enough to accommodate differences, evolution, and revision of thought. For the full manifesto, see http://­www​.­laboriacuboniks​.­net​/­. For a discussion of cognition and concept formation, see Ray Brassier, “The View from Nowhere,” Identities 8, no. 2 (Summer 2011): 6–23. 2. ​“In computer science, garbage in, garbage out (GIGO), is where flawed, or nonsense input data produces nonsense output or ‘garbage.’ ” “Garbage in, Garbage out,” Wikipedia, accessed November  30, 2017, https://­​ /­Garbage_in,_garbage_out. Some of the “garbage” that XF is concerned with are both blind spots as well as glaringly obvious inequities that function, regardless of how objectionable they might be, as naturalized truths or as cultural norms that are now at risk of being written into code at foundational levels of artificial learning and/or machine learning as it emerges from its infancy. 3. ​Laboria Cuboniks, “Xenofeminism—­A Politics for Alienation,” accessed September 20, 2017, http://­www​.­laboriacuboniks​.­net​/­. 4. ​Cuboniks, “Xenofeminism,” 375. 5. ​Robert Brandom, From Empiricism to Expressivism: Brandom Reads Sellars (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015), 101–102. 6. ​Thomas Ligotti, The Conspiracy against the H ­ uman Race (New York: Hippocampus, 2010), 19. 7. ​The phrase is Robert Brandom’s. I am taking it from Brassier, “The View from Nowhere.”


Diann Bauer

8. ​Dean Buonomano, Your Brain Is a Time Machine: The Neuroscience and Physics of Time (New York: Norton, 2017), 21. Buonomano is using the example to make the point that “virtually e­ very aspect of animal be­hav­ior and cognition requires the ability to tell time,” but I am using it to make clear a kind of prelinguistic knowing that is pres­ent in both ­human and nonhuman animals. 9. ​A gravitational sling shot is how a spaceflight trajectory “take[s] advantage of the fact that the gravitational attraction of the planets can be used to change the trajectory and speed of a spacecraft. The amount by which the spacecraft speeds up or slows down is determined by ­whether it is passing ­behind or in front of the planet as the planet follows its orbit. When the spacecraft leaves the influence of the planet, it follows an orbit on a dif­fer­ent course than before.” Eu­ro­pean Space Agency, “Let Gravity Assist You,” accessed September 20, 2017, http://­www​.­esa​ .­int​/­Our​_­Activities​/­Space​_­Science​/­Exploring​_­space​/­Let​_­g ravity​_­assist​_­you. 10. ​Carl Sagan, Cosmos (New York: Random House, 1980), 238. BIBLIOGRAPHY

Brandon, Robert. From Empiricism to Expressivism: Brandom Reads Sellars. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015. Brassier, Ray. “The View from Nowhere.” Identities: Journal of Politics, Gender and Culture 8, no. 2 (Summer 2011): 6–23. Buonomano, Dean. Your Brain Is a Time Machine: The Neuroscience and Physics of Time. New York: Norton, 2017. Eu­ro­pean Space Agency. “Let Gravity Assist You.” Exploring Space/Space Science. Accessed September  20, 2017. http://­www​.­esa​.­int​/­Our​_­Activities/Space_Sci​ ence/Exploring_space/Let_gravity_assist_you. Laboria Cuboniks. “Xenofeminism—­A Politics for Alienation.” Accessed September 20, 2017. http://­www​.­laboriacuboniks​.­net​/­. Ligotti, Thomas. The Conspiracy against the H ­ uman Race. New York: Hippocampus, 2010. Sagan, Carl. Cosmos. New York: Random House, 1980.


In Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, he describes a priori conditions as ­those which do not require experience to confirm. Kant describes that “­these belong to pure intuition, which, even without any a­ ctual object of the senses or of sensation, exists in the mind a priori as a mere form of sensibility.”1 The word is derived from the Latin “from the earlier” and is used to make a distinction between the qualities of an object that are a given and immutable truth, and ­those that can be sensed and qualified by sensorial experience, or the a posteriori. A priori qualities might include statements like, “The plaza is privately owned,” or “I have more apples than Joe.” A posteriori might include conclusions like, “It is hot in t­here,” or “The red is too bright.” Both are essential to understanding an object and formulating a body of knowledge around it and must be read together in order to make a close, critical reading. However, too much emphasis on one or the other becomes problematic. Identity politics (idpol)—­possibly the most hotly contested area of intellectual and po­liti­cal discussion ­today—­adheres in many ways to t­hese same principals. Identity politics “describes how marginalized ­people embrace previously stigmatized identities, create communities on the basis of shared attributes and interests (which are typically held to be essential and unchanging), and rally ­either for autonomy or for rights and recognitions.”2 It seeks to move beyond an antiquated Marxist idea of class strug­ gle where the white male industrial worker is centered. This narrative was a myth anyway, b­ ecause in practice most re­sis­tance involved both w ­ omen and ­people of color. While the foundations of identity politics discourse are solid in its foundations—­antiracism, antisexism, and anti-­imperialism—it has its limits, one of which is the occasional overreliance on a priori reductionism to


Matt Shaw

place value on ­people’s opinions based on their immutable characteristics, such as gender, race, and nationality, in order to or­ga­nize voices in the space of debate and assign legitimacy to certain viewpoints over ­others. “Idpol reductionism” is defined by the Medium writer named Mond as “centering the validity or correctness of one’s analy­sis based on that person’s oppressed identity, be it race, class, gender, sexuality, ­etc.”3 ­There is a purpose to ­these tactics, as they assist in giving voice to t­hose who have personally experienced certain phenomenon or have knowledge about issues such as privilege, discrimination, and aggression. However, like any tactic, they can sometimes be problematic. The overreliance on the a priori can serve to distort the material conditions of any given situation. By saying that an individual cannot speak to an event like Brexit ­because they are not from Britain, while a British person’s opinion is automatically valid, can serve to make it difficult to address the situation and see Brexit for what it is. As Mond notes, “This form of liberal reductionism is inconsistent and constantly works in ­favor of the oppressing class by blurring the material conditions of a given event or society.” This tendency to rely too heavi­ly on one’s characteristics is likely a result of our Internet culture and the new attention economy where serious discourse is difficult, and judging opinions on a priori qualities of ­those speaking or writing is much easier and quicker. In architectural criticism t­ oday, we have a similar prob­lem, which is our inability to critically address the object as it is sensed. As Mark Foster Gage mentions in the introduction to this book, it is a burgeoning twenty-­first-­ century cliché to make e­ very academic or critical pursuit into an act of po­liti­cal or social activism at its most basic and rudimentary level of engagement. Architectural criticism has become very reduced to addressing the a priori over the sensible or material conditions of an object or in a given space. As this book portends, a more nuanced and more aesthetically oriented critique is needed. Similar to what Mond says about the tendency of idpol to sometimes reduce the validity to someone’s nationality, and so on,4 criticism t­oday in architecture and urbanism has been reduced to allowing w ­ holesale dismissal based on a priori characteristics, usually associated with current events or baseline po­liti­cal arguments. Phi­los­o­pher Graham Harman describes two ways of explaining an object: undermining, or reducing it to what it is made of (a ­table is chunks of wood or a cluster of atoms), and overmining, or treating it as merely part of a larger narrative or set of relationships (the ­table facilitates social

Reorienting Criticism 207

relations between dif­fer­ent cultures.) The specificity of undermining is to deduce what an object is made of: smaller and more fundamental objects. Overmining, a word that Harman coined himself, infers that objects themselves are not deep enough. “Every­thing is language, every­ thing is power, every­thing is relational, every­thing is an event.”5 In this sense, objects ­don’t ­matter, only the dynamics between them. A third way, called “duomining,” combines both modes of understanding, positing that neither can ­really offer enough to grasp the real object. “A ­table is neither the pieces of which it is made, nor the effects it has on users. Neither is it the difference between t­hese two poles of interpretation.  … Art has a special capacity for dealing with the ‘third ­table’ that lies between the first t­able (table-­particles) and second t­able (table-­events).”6 Duomining eliminates the reductionism of the overmined, a priori qualities that simply address an object’s social or po­liti­cal relationships without giving enough credence to the ­actual object as it exists in the world. For example, many of the “overmining” criticisms lobbed at the Chicago Architecture Biennial since it was announced had been nothing more than a priori reductionism. The worst offender was Marc Fischer, who ostensibly boycotted the 2015 version on the grounds that it was funded by oil ­giant BP.7 When asked by The Architect’s Newspaper to contribute to one of several preview articles, in this case an insider’s guide to the city, he responded in a public statement, “In light of BP’s sponsorship of the Chicago Architecture Biennial, and that com­pany’s history of enormous environmental destruction, I w ­ ill not contribute in any way to promotion of this event.” His reluctance to critically engage with the event and its contents based on the fact that BP had sponsored it leaves l­ittle room for addressing the very real discussions that the exhibition and surrounding programs w ­ ere able to start in Chicago. Furthermore, the exhibition actually addressed many of the issues that prompted a series of questions that Fischer went on to ask, such as, “Which skyscraper provides the greatest distraction from issues of real consequence that impact the lives of Chicago residents that live everywhere ­else?” The issue of BP was again brought up during the 2017 version. While ­there was never any evidence of how exactly BP was influencing the Biennial, many critics continued to focus on this aspect of the show. Adjustments Agency, a curatorial and critical practice based in New York, released a website,, which consisted of an image of a burning oil tanker with the words “Make New History” across it. “Make New History” was


Matt Shaw

the theme of the Biennial, but the references to the ­actual show ended ­there. The site was simply a history of BP and its transgressions against the environment, democracy, and its employees, as well as a history of Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel, who has had his own embattled history as a financier, congressman, presidential chief of staff, and mayor.8 ­doesn’t address anything that actually happened at the Biennial and helps to obscure the ­actual facts on the ground. Had a reporter gone and found documents saying that BP attached strings to its donation that stated, “no mention of climate change” or “no labor-­oriented works,” then we might have a story. ­Until then, a priori reductionism is substituting for real discursive engagement about how the corporate sponsorship might be affecting the show. In the discussions around the public versus the private, a priori reductionism can cloud our judgement of the material conditions of a given object. Often, an excellent design proj­ect is hated ­because it is privately funded, such as Rafael Vinoly’s 432 Park Tower on 57th  Street—­ Manhattan’s “Billionaire’s Row.” Can a privately funded proj­ect that benefits a handful of ­people financially while housing another handful and looming over the entire city be beautiful? According to some, it cannot, but it would be impor­tant to look past the a priori “it is for the 1 ­percent” argument and look at some of the more nuanced, duomined questions, such as, “What does it mean to build so high?” or “What can we learn about design excellence from the delivery of a proj­ect like this?” This kind of unwillingness to talk about a­ ctual architecture and design has not always been so rampant. The first architecture critic for The New York Times, Ada Louise Huxtable, wrote one of the seminal books in architecture criticism, titled Kicked a Building Lately? The title suggests what Huxtable is known for: the physical act of kicking ­here is the analogy for engaging a building on your own terms, and examining the object for what it is. Huxtable was a woman-­on-­the-­street who could see the historical, po­liti­cal, and social consequences of a piece of architecture, but derived this knowledge from her own senses. As Alexandra Lange put it in a 2011 obituary of Huxtable, “To kick the tires of a building you have to be pres­ent at its creation and its completion. You have to let yourself be small beside it, walk around it, walk up the steps, pick (delicately) at the joints, run your fin­gers along the handrail, push open the door. You have to let yourself stand back, across the street, across the highway, across the waterfront, and assess.”9

Reorienting Criticism 209

What would an object-­oriented criticism look like t­ oday? Taking Harman’s duomining to its logical conclusion, it would take both a priori characteristics and combine them with the sensual experience of being in a building or at a site. The object becomes layered with ­these other concepts, and the content of the building becomes clearer as we read it at all scales. A ­simple description is not enough, while a pure critique of the social and po­liti­cal forces is also reductive. A reasoned critique is a marbling of the two and would make connections between them, hinting t­oward a better understanding of the complexities of the object. K. Michael Hays addresses some of ­these topics in his seminal 1984 essay “Critical Architecture: Between Culture and Form.” Hays positions architecture not as a reinforcement of power or pre-­existing cultural values, nor as an autonomous system of formal syntax, but rather as something between the two poles.10 “The proposition of a critical realm between culture and form … is a challenge to ­those views that claim to exhaust architectural meaning in considerations of only one or the other.” The first argument, analogous with Harman’s “overmining,” is that “architecture is an instrument of culture.” ­Here, architecture reifies that culture or po­liti­cal or economic structure which it was produced by, without subjective interpretation or an account of the sensible. The position, according to Hayes, is “retrospective,” as the critic is only able to reconstruct what happened from historical fact, or a priori characteristics. It is an impor­tant part of analy­sis of the object, as it connects it to culture. However, this extreme position paradoxically leaves the architectural proj­ect and its associated critical thinking with l­ittle to no agency. Harman states that “overmining fails in that it cannot explain change. If t­here is nothing but appearance, relation, event, or interaction—­with nothing lying beneath—­then ­there is no reason why anything could possibly alter.” The second argument, that architecture is an autonomous formal exercise that is immune to external forces, is also a dead end for the critic, as it also leaves architecture with no po­liti­cal agency. H ­ ere, as Hays notes,11 architecture is disarmed from the beginning as it is conceived without any relation to the time or place it is conceived. This discourse was helpful in its development of a language and the freedom to treat the architectural object as something unto itself with its own pro­cesses and logics. ­These critical methods have become less prevalent in architecture since the decline of the nihilistic digital image-­making craze of the early 2000s


Matt Shaw

and the rise of the socially and po­liti­cally oriented rhe­toric of the last de­cade. ­Today’s conversations in architecture and beyond are clouded by the overmining ideology, perhaps ­because it seems so difficult to make change in the world, with broken po­liti­cal systems such as the US Congress and its quasi-­corrupt system of lobbying by large corporations. Similarly, architecture ­today often seems to be at its most power­ful as a tool of capital or nefarious governments, such as New York City development and the proposed US-­Mexico border wall, respectively. Architectural criticism can re­orient itself ­toward the object, and in ­doing so, can more accurately interpret what exactly the po­liti­cal implications of form can be. As Hayes writes of architectural criticism, “In order to know all we can about architecture … we must understand it as actively and continually occupying a cultural place—as an architectural intention with ascertainable po­liti­cal and intellectual consequences.” It cannot be a disinterested object, nor can it be a s­imple vessel for cultural forces made concrete.12 Perhaps ­today we require a criticism less “between” and more “among” form and culture, but also among that which is sensible, and that which can represent. This combination of several types of analy­sis would lead to a criticism that combines all the ways of reading or accounting for meaning into one series of observations. Then we can have more criticism that is looking forward, projecting and speculating on meaning that is not retrospective or inert, but enlivens architecture both within the discipline and outside of it: form and culture, aesthetics and politics. NOTES

1. ​Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, trans. Norman Kemp Smith (London: Macmillan, 1929). 2. ​Roger Lancaster, “Identity Politics Can Only Get Us So Far,” Jacobin, accessed January 14, 2018, https://­​-­politics-­gay​ -­r ights-­neoliberalism-­stonewall-­feminism-­race. 3. ​Mond, “On Idpol Reductionism and Anti-­Imperialism,” Medium, accessed January 14, 2018, https://­​-­idpol-­reduc​ tionism-­and-­anti-­imperialism-9515c00e4015. 4. ​Mond, “On Idpol Reductionism.” 5. ​Graham Harman, “A Dif­fer­ent Sense of Mimesis” (pre­sen­ta­tion, Aesthetic Activism, New Haven, CT, October 13–15, 2016).

Reorienting Criticism 211 6. ​Graham Harman, “Undermining, Overmining, and Duomining: A Critique,” in ADD Metaphysics, ed. Jenna Sutela (Aalto, Finland: Aalto University Digital Design Laboratory, 2013), 40–51. 7. ​Marc Fischer, “Statement Regarding the Chicago Biennial,” Hardcore Architecture, accessed January 14, 2018, https://­​ /­marc​-­fischer​-­rejects​-­2015​-­chicago​-­architecture​-­biennial​.­html. 8. ​Adjustments Agency, “,” accessed January 14, 2018, htttp://www​ .­compli​.­city. 9. ​Alexandra Lange, “Kicked a Building Lately?,” Design Observer, accessed January 14, 2018, https://­­a​-­building​-­lately​/37627. 10. ​K. Michael Hays, “Critical Architecture: Between Culture and Form,” Perspecta 21 (1984): 14–29. 11. ​Hays, “Critical Architecture.” 12. ​Hays, “Critical Architecture.” BIBLIOGRAPHY

Adjustments Agency. “” Accessed January 14, 2018. http://­www​.­compli​ .­city. Fischer, Marc. “Statement Regarding the Chicago Biennial.” Hardcore Architecture. Accessed September  5, 2016. https://­​ /­marc​-­fischer​-­rejects​-­2015​-­chicago​-­architecture​-­biennial​.­html. Harman, Graham. “A Dif­fer­ent Sense of Mimesis.” Pre­sen­ta­tion at Aesthetic Activism, New Haven, CT, October 13–15, 2016. Harman, Graham. “Undermining, Overmining, and Duomining: A Critique.” In ADD Metaphysics, edited by Jenna Sutela, 40–51. Aalto, Finland: Aalto University Digital Design Laboratory, 2013. Hays, K. Michael. “Critical Architecture: Between Culture and Form.” Perspecta 21 (1984): 14–29. Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Pure Reason. Translated by Norman Kemp Smith. London: Macmillan, 1929. Lancaster, Roger. “Identity Politics Can Only Get Us So Far.” Jacobin. Accessed January 14, 2018. https://­​-­politics-­gay​ -­r ights-­neoliberalism-­stonewall-­feminism-­race. Lange, Alexandra. “Kicked a Building Lately?” Design Observer. Accessed January 8, 2013. https://­­a​-­building​-­lately​/37627. Mond, “On Idpol Reductionism and Anti-­Imperialism.” Medium. Accessed April 17, 2017. https://­­idpol​-­reduct ionism-­and-­anti-­imperialism-9515c00e4015.


As you wander around cities admiring the bold architecture, the overwhelming skylines, the distant silhouettes of iconic buildings, and its vertiginous urban mazes, you cannot help but feel mesmerized and belittled by the overpowering grandiosity, and even intimidated by the talent of all ­those architects, engineers, and builders who made ­these urban splendors pos­si­ble. Where do we begin to understand this complexity in the face of such scale? As an architect or an architectural critic, the city and its buildings shrink, instead of admiring the façades, materials, or bold aesthetics, you zoom into the small details, analyzing and scrutinizing. Rather than the bewildered amazement at the Big, your won­der turns ­toward the small details: “How was this corner junction pos­si­ble?” “What kind of models did they use to visualize that volume?” “What software helped them draw ­these wavy roofs?” “How ­were the glare effects on that steel surface calculated and mitigated?” Yet, the crowds around you miss t­hese features; they only see the building ­there. Gazing at a Gehry, a Koolhaas, or a Hadid building, you inspect, dissect, and examine, while the e­ ager crowds engage in aesthetic contemplation; you get in close, they remain distanced. One shot ­after another, a m ­ usic of  “clicks,” whose tempo conflicts with the slowness of your inspection. Pictures pile on their cameras, making the crowds believe that the building is on ­these pictures, transferred entirely, making them think that when they take the camera home, the collection of speedy “clicks” ­will reveal that urban won­der for them again. Let us begin by admiring an image very similar to the photos that ­these crowds of architecture lovers would take, say, a picture of a Gehry. Frank Gehry is posing, and next to him a building also “poses.” The Ray and Maria Stata Center on the MIT campus is a building that h ­ ouses three


Albena Yaneva and Brett Mommersteeg

Figure 13.1 Frank Gehry and the Stata Center. Courtesy of the authors.

MIT departments: the Computer Sciences and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, the Laboratory for Information and Decision Systems, and the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy (figure 13.1). Looking at the image, we contemplate a proud architect with his overbearing building, bowing at him in its steel and yellow glamour. This sculptural composition of an architect-­and-­building is reminiscent of a visual work based on tactile intuition, which apprehends the world as discrete Euclidean blocks of space-­time that consist of an arrangement of static, even, and unbroken objects in space.1 What is fascinating about this picture is that both the creator and the work of architecture are immutable, clearly detached from the messiness and unforeseeable hazards of any adventure of making. And so is the aesthetic discourse that the image of this building expresses. The image represents the building as a static coherent object, simply standing “out ­there,” a product drained of life, recalling what Bruno Latour had termed “a m ­ atter of fact,” in opposition to “­matters of concern.”2 This means, it is portrayed as brute m ­ atter, a mere reflective surface, a fact, and contemplated as an aesthetic product by crowds of tourists, the appreciation and perception of which varies according to their changing perspectives. Adopting a discourse that mirrors the aesthetics of buildings as “­matters of fact,” the critics ­will glorify its beauty and form, and explain its features as reflecting cultural trends and shifts in institutional politics.

The Unbearable Lightness of Architectural Aesthetic Discourse 215

Figure 13.2 From left to right: Laurie Anderson (artist), John McGrath (artistic director, MIF), Rem Koolhaas (OMA), Sir Nicholas Serota (chair, Arts Council ­England), Ellen van Loon (OMA), Sir Richard Leese (leader, Manchester City Council), Tom Bloxham (chair, MIF), John Glen (MP, former parliamentary undersecretary for arts, heritage and tourism) at the groundbreaking ceremony of the Factory building in Manchester, United Kingdom. Courtesy of OMA.

Turning to another photo session staged recently, far from the Stata building, takes us to another scenography. It is Manchester, ­England, 2017, and the groundbreaking ceremony for a new “cutting-­edge” cultural building from OMA, called “Factory” (figure 13.2). Touted as the f­uture icon of the Northwest of ­England, funded with £78 million of public money and a total capital bud­get of more than £111 million, and carry­ing the pressure of growing a cultural counterbalance to London, the proj­ect already attracts a significant amount of importance and interest. The “Factory,” when built, w ­ ill be the largest OMA building in the UK. It ­will exemplify the regeneration ambitions of a city that is believed to become the Northern Power­house of Britain, and as a cultural icon, ­will serve to ­house the Manchester International Festival (MIF), a world-­leading arts and cultural event, known for its genre bending and innovation.


Albena Yaneva and Brett Mommersteeg

As we can see from the image, this groundbreaking scene no longer stages a creator in front of, or detached from, his bowing creation. ­There is instead a group of ­people bowing to the ground, hammers in hand, ready to engage in the ceremonial act of “breaking,” the symbolic act that signals a commencement, preparing the site for the building, a tabula rasa. Instead of a building, we have a building-­to-be, a proj­ect; instead of a site to step on, ­there is a ground, passively awaiting the collective signal of the hammers breaking ground that both initiates the origin of the proj­ect, but also places a stake, the first marking of the new building’s territory. Instead of one architect in front of a building, we see the gathering of a few participants in design; in addition to the star architect, Rem Koolhaas, that we all recognize, t­ here is Ellen van Loon, partner at OMA, but also Laurie Anderson, the experimental artist, Sir Nicholas Serota, chair of Arts Council ­England, Sir Richard Leese, deputy mayor for business and economy in the Manchester City Council, Tom Bloxham, chair of the MIF, John Glen, an MP in the Conservative Party and the under-­secretary for arts, heritage, and tourism, and John McGrath, artistic director for MIF. The staging is quite dif­fer­ent. ­Here, ­there is a horizontal line of collaborators—­only a selected sample—­standing firmly on the ground, even aiming at it, with a virtual building in mind, a vision, a projection. Nevertheless, akin to Gehry’s image, both the ground and the building-­ to-be are taken for immutable, solid facts that are simply ­there, unquestionable, motionless, and meant to endure in themselves. As we can see, “groundbreaking” is already a misnomer, a misrepre­sen­ta­tion, founded on the aesthetic discourse of  “­matters of fact.” It assumes that a building breaks ­free of its ground, originating a radical departure. This origin ignores the meandering trajectory that the Factory has already gone through: since its start as a proj­ect in 2015, its trajectory has already detoured through the changing cultural and po­liti­cal landscape of the British city planning and construction industry, delayed by the po­liti­cal anx­i­eties of the Brexit climate, and enlisted vari­ous participants from consultancies like Places M ­ atter to historical groups like Historic ­England—in other words, an entire “ecol­ ogy” of actors that is needed in order to prepare the ground. But it is that par­tic­u­lar moment that ­will be considered as the true miraculous beginning, its “double-­click” magic resonating with the discourses about Manchester’s “strategic” regeneration, the large-­scale development of the St John’s neighborhood, the continuing international success of MIF, and the

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f­ uture of cultural buildings in the UK and globally. Following this ceremonial act, the trajectories of the proj­ect w ­ ill go underground, only re-­ emerging once we have another image of Koolhaas in front of his bowing Factory. In each of t­hese scenographies, t­here is something quite staged, the upshot of an artificial trick, escaping all mediations, in this picture of Gehry in front of the Stata building, and Koolhaas and the ­others before the virtual Factory. They look like contained, beautiful artifacts beyond ­human intention. In the first image, Gehry is neither looking at the building nor is the Stata building “staring” at his creator, they are simply arranged in front of each other. The other ­human interventions, the traces of design experimentation with wooden models or with the Catia software have all vanished. Reminiscent of Greek vases resting next to each other in the silence of an archaeological museum, the figures in ­these pictures are motionless, ready for us, the fragile viewers, to proj­ect our changing interpretations upon them, our opinions, our likes and dislikes. The magnificent beauty and the subtle irony of this sculptural appearance—­the-­master-­architect-­ and-­his-­oeuvre—­signals how rare it is to see this amazingly artificial, carefully staged, and historically coded composition of figures, all looking at us, the viewers and consumers of aesthetic discourse. Contemplate the scene, stare and witness: a proud figure of an architect and a beautiful building gracefully “bowing” to his master! Similarly, in the image of the groundbreaking ceremony of the Factory building, we find an equally staged and artificial scene. The ceremonial, quasi-­magical moment captured on it ­will be praised for its importance as an aesthetic endpoint of a long pro­cess of design and development, and at the same time, as a pseudomythical origin for the construction journey. Both the ­people and the ground are set; neither is the specifically selected group of participants looking at the ground where the building ­will be raised nor is the ground “staring” at the hammers in their hands. They are all arranged before each other in a historically and socially coded composition that is meant to speak on behalf of that groundbreaking ritual. The hammers are the only link to mediation, hinting to the pro­cess of construction, a very hasty hint; yet, the design pro­cess, the traces of model experimentation at the OMA office in Rotterdam and London, the other design, city, and po­liti­cal interventions have vanished. Although outnumbering the figures in the Gehry picture, ­these characters are also frozen in that specific


Albena Yaneva and Brett Mommersteeg

gesture that would connect hammer, site, and design proj­ect; they are simply standing ­there, posing, and waiting for us to contemplate the historical importance of this ceremonial moment. The composition of the picture and the elusive irony of the appearance of a proud group of ­people, a bunch of unused hammers, and an empty ground, all signal a simulated and carefully prepared imitation of a culturally and symbolically impor­tant moment in the urban history of Manchester that ­will be widely reproduced in the architectural aesthetic discourse in the years to come. Both the Gehry and the OMA image bring us into an Euclidian geometrical space—­that is, an awareness of t­ hings (buildings, objects, tools, ground) that are standing ­there, literally at hand; the buildings and the ground have segments of lines, ­angles, areas, and volumes that can be mea­ sured. ­These images invoke the Greek ideal of sculptural art, whose specific character can be explained by the dominance of tactile-­muscular intuitions that “far from leading to any sense of continuity or organic order, inhibit them.”3 The tactile mind reminds us of an old philosophical divide between primary substance (­matter that is simply located in an in­de­pen­ dently existing space) and secondary mirage-­like, attributable qualities, commonly set off against the primary ones.4 Drawing on the distinction between the primary and secondary qualities of architectural works, the logic of t­ hese scenes is tactile, locating architectural objects in space, reducing space to a container wherein pure geometrical forms are placed without the influence of time. The prob­lem with t­ hese two scenes is also that they only represent, just like Greek art does, subjects and objects in space in a single gesture, or in an emblematic foundational moment. They achieve the impression of a building that is abstract, immutable, frighteningly lonely and isolated from the world, or a site that is empty and uncontested, a plot of vacant land without constraints and previous lives, thus reproducing the modernist dualism of passive objects and active subjects. We can certainly spend more time examining ­these pictures, both of them amazingly reminiscent of Greek sculptural compositions that although plastic, often convoluted and contested, remarkably lack tension. Nevertheless, what we witness h ­ ere is far from being a summary of common sense experience. Where and how often do we meet an architect standing still, proud and smiling, in front of a building? How often do we meet an architect holding a hammer, suspending the gesture of hitting a stake into the ground? Can we believe that only one man deserves to be

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on this picture next to the magnificent beauty of a static oeuvre? Can we consent that only a small group of architects and user-­clients deserve to share the excitement of a groundbreaking ceremony? Moreover, how long can we share the false impression that the ­simple mediation of a few hammers, all together, in a miraculous synchronic move, ­will trigger a complex pro­cess of construction? How frequently is an oeuvre or site mutely “bowing” to ­humans or bending ­under their feet without letting many other voices—­both h ­ uman and nonhuman—­come out of the countless mouths of the multiheaded monster that a building often is? Look at ­these pictures again, and you can say every­thing you wish, but do they ever echo real experience? Most of the designers’ experiences (and our experience as viewers and inhabitants) are not obtained in that way. Every­thing in ­these pictures is implausible and contrived: t­here is an invisible bridge separating the h ­ uman figures from the nonhumans, and primary from secondary qualities. They reveal the common modernist ways in which the aesthetic appearance of buildings is portrayed and outline the key features of an aesthetic discourse based on tactile mindedness. ­A fter all, are they not reminiscent of the usual iconography of so many pictures that thousands of tourists have taken in front of Frank Gehry’s buildings or of Rem Koolhaas’s buildings all over the world? Yet, they seem extravagant in terms of experience ­because apart from a tourist and a star architect in a photo session, no one meets a building or a site in this way. BUILDINGS AS “­MATTERS OF CONCERN”

How is it that con­temporary aesthetic discourse still relies on a visual regime that can hardly pay justice to the complexity of architecture making? Neither of the two images engages this feast of crossing the invisible bridge of making (the Gehry scene) or the invisible bridge of construction (the Factory scene); ­there are no vis­i­ble intermediaries between both sides, ­human and nonhuman. If instead we bring images of architecture-­in-­the-­ making (figure 13.3), we ­will see that both architects and buildings-­to-be cross that invisible bridge many times; they populate the world of making with heterogeneous crowds of actors, strange creatures, noises, and smells of cut foam and are full of mediations and vari­ous types of objectivity from materials to dif­fer­ent kinds of beings, shapes, experiments, spaces, and times. To reinvent aesthetic discourse in architecture, we argue h ­ ere, we should


Albena Yaneva and Brett Mommersteeg

Figure 13.3 Architecture in the making, OMA. Courtesy of the authors.

refuse to live in the ruins of common modernist scenographies; we should rethink the visual style and devise the suitable rhetorical techniques of a discourse that ­will better capture and express the complexity of buildings as “­matters of concern.” By orienting an aesthetic discourse around what Latour refers to as “­matters of concern” that capture the metamorphoses of built objects and gather context(s) into themselves, another scenography emerges, which avoids the a priori bifurcation of the world into nature and culture, subject and object, facts and values.5 This modernist scenography divides what “­matters” in advance: on the one side, the building out ­there, and on the

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other, the symbolic, cultural, and po­liti­cal expressions of this building. In contrast, “­matters of concern” require that we take into account in the same gesture both “­matters,” the material concerns that gather interested actors around a building on the move, as well as “concerns,” that which ­matters, that embodies values, cultures, and subjects. Instead of  “double-­ clicking” from one side to the other, an aesthetic discourse based on “­matters of concern” foregrounds the complexity of a building, and does not shy away from the slow entangled work of crossing the invisible bridge between ­humans and nonhumans. Our experience of studying architecture in the making outlines even more the artificiality of the modernist scenography. Designers rarely fit into ­these kinds of images. Look at ­these frantic shots of architects at work (figure 13.3). In this cascade of visuals, none of the participants in design stand in front of a building or sketch, smiling or posing; instead, they move around at dif­fer­ent paces of speed, actively engaging in discussions, slicing foam, rescaling models, redrawing with AutoCAD, retouching images with Photoshop. ­There are no hammers to hold, but plans to be drawn, foam to be cut. Unlike this hammer that breaks ground, we do not witness a miraculous “double-­click” transformation from a rough computer or physical model to a perfect building; all of them, all together, frantically and passionately follow thousands of pixels and models, generate multiple scenarios of a building-­to-be, anxiously follow its successive transformations through a perplexing number of webby moves difficult to grasp. Thus, by no means, can the aesthetics of a building be captured by a single object (the end building or the passive ground) and a subject (typically the master architect and a few o ­ thers). A “slow-­motion” study of design at Gehry’s office6 or in OMA7 ­will register many other h ­ uman and nonhuman participants in design, each with their own oscillating trajectories and varying ontologies. Where would this vast crowd of participants that contribute to the making of a building fit in a single image? And, if, by a miracle, we are able to fit them all in one image, they w ­ ill appear so entangled that it w ­ ill be impossible to distinguish the proud posture of a ­human from the one of a foam model or a building standing in space. How, if we could create such a densely tangled and ontologically thick image, ­will this enrich the aesthetic discourse on buildings? The series of images that trace how Gehry draws or how OMA architects engage in model making w ­ ill imply a visual mind that is more


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relational and escapes mea­sure­ment, which is very distinct from the visual regime of the two static images that correspond to tactile mindedness we saw above. In the scenes of making, we see buildings-­to-be that breathe, that have emotional and volitional characteristics reminiscent to living subjects. Design materials and tools emanate motion, emotion, and expression. They are the opposite of objects that have no relation to anything, of sculptures in Euclidian space. They have mind and faith, and w ­ ills and responsibilities. Follow design in the making in the practices of t­hese two architects and you w ­ ill witness more true movement in the tension of their experimental shapes; you ­will notice the many dif­fer­ent interferences of other actors that make a building and its trajectory change shape, too, their b­ attles and how the moves of all t­hese fighters coalesce in a single continuous rhythmical design pro­cess grasping the unceasing flow of collective making. In other words, you ­will not see a building as a “­matter of fact,” as if in a single frozen image, but one that attracts “­matters of concern,” images on the move. Slowing down the observation and following designers from up close w ­ ill multiply the possibilities of understanding the aesthetic dimension of architecture making. To put it simply: our aesthetic discourse should model the way we practice and experience architecture. THE ADVENTURES OF CONTESTATION

Since the invention of perspective, architecture has enjoyed a way of depicting objects in a unified space, a quasi-­mechanical procedure, a logical scheme, and a grammar of thought. Yet, the real­ity of architecture is more dramatic and its dramas are full of action; in other words, the design and construction pro­cesses that unfold with varying dynamics and enroll multiple participants and concerns implies that they occur in the same visual space and not dif­fer­ent ones.8 Therefore, it becomes impossible to treat buildings as spatially unor­ga­nized congeries of symbols. To aesthetically understand their nature, they should be rather captured as dramatic ensembles, as “­matters of concern.” ­Going back to that iconic image of Gehry smiling proudly in front of the Stata building, it neither captures its drama of making nor its drama of inhabitation. Where are the philanthropists who made it financially pos­si­ ble, or the other architects, engineers, and con­sul­tants who worked alongside Gehry? Was Gehry the only mastermind ­behind the design? And,

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where are the construction workers who brought the concept into material real­ity? Many actors did not linger in front of the building to admire its daring postmodernist architecture, but expressed concerns and actively debated the building; they engaged with it. How is this conveyed in aesthetic discourse? Built in 2004, on the MIT campus in Cambridge, the Stata Center challenges the conventional ideas of campus science buildings.9 How is MIT’s ambition to bring dif­fer­ent researchers ­under a single roof on the main campus to improve productivity achieved? How do the Stata design features contribute to fostering interactions between scientists? How is its inventive interior design and striking public spaces attracting students and researchers from out of their private worlds and putting them in contact with one another? Or, in other words, how is the building working now? And, why did it become so controversial from the moment it opened doors? Where did the dif­fer­ent issues—­cost control, the dissatisfaction of the scientists and technicians as users, their confusions, their frustrations with the curved shapes that made them feel like rats10—­pile up and how ­were they scrutinized publically? How ­were the numerous prob­lems—­cracks, leaks, and drainage prob­lems—­noticed and taken care of? How did the discourse swing from the adoration of the Stata iconicity down to the escalating dissatisfaction of the MIT administration, engaging in a lawsuit for negligence? Moreover, the image of Koolhaas smiling proudly on the empty ground in Manchester is far from capturing the complexity of its design and development during construction. The Factory building is yet to be developed, and vari­ous versions of it are still pos­si­ble, all entangled in the rapidly fluctuating po­liti­cal landscape of Manchester; it is a key piece in the redevelopment of its city center, but also in the larger cultural ecol­ogy of the MIF. As a result, it has already begun gathering a growing set of concerns, from politicians to historical specialists, from artists to developers. If instead of showing the image of the glorious groundbreaking commencement of construction, we foreground the dramatic ensemble that grows during design, development, and construction and in public pre­sen­ta­tions, if instead of pointing out to one iconic rendering, we show many pos­si­ble versions, and we w ­ ill engage in producing an aesthetic discourse that ­will better acknowledge the turbulent life of a building. If the image of the groundbreaking ceremony of the Factory shows the emblematic gesture of the commencement of construction and the


Albena Yaneva and Brett Mommersteeg

Figure 13.4 Rendering of the Factory, OMA. Courtesy of OMA.

rendering of this iconic-­to-be building (figure 13.4) shows an i­magined proposal of a building as a product, we are not surprised to see them again and again, as ­these types of images proliferate in conventional aesthetic discourse. They are ­there for contemplation, to assuage concerns of the general public; they state what the building ­will be. However, they entirely ignore the dramatic course of design development and construction; one collective photo-op is not capable of enlivening this drama as it gathers concerns about specific aspects of the building-­to-be. A close look at the recent developments of the Factory proj­ect shows that it is already assembling groups around specific material concerns, like the quality of acoustics in the building, noise and vibration from the construction site, environmental standards of the construction and the building itself (BREEAM assessments), the impact on the nearby ecol­ogy of the site, on the amount of sunlight surrounding buildings w ­ ill receive, the historical significance of adjacent buildings and the site, the financial viability of the f­ uture building, the way it w ­ ill impact the regeneration of Manchester, its potential to become a “landmark,” the construction

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bud­get, its role within the broader cultural landscape of the North West of ­England. This incomplete list of concerns already suggests that the typically invisible, per static aesthetic discourse, timespan from the first hammer hit u ­ ntil the building is built is full of disputes and diversions. Sticking to the per­for­mance analogy, a rendering, if we take it in its full meaning, should indicate that enfolded into a building are multiple “coresponses,” a symphony of voices, rather than a univocity. Design and construction are far from following unproblematic lines of flight, of extricating a built form as if it is chiseled from a block of marble in the sculptural scenography. Stepping outside of the drama of making in the practices of Gehry or OMA, into the larger ecol­ogy of design development and construction, we rather see how a building’s trajectory becomes multilinear with vari­ous meandering lines, accumulating more voices. It unfolds in a “disarray real­ity” as an entangled weaving through the landscape of competing concerns and negotiations rather than through miraculous sets of “double-­clicks.” One way we can witness the meandering course of design development and construction is to slowly move through the planning documents of the Factory building that illustrate the varied realities of the building. Flipping through the many dif­fer­ent documents, from the Design and Access Statement, the vari­ous Heritage Appraisals, to the Construction Management Plan, the statements of consultation, and the vari­ous executive reports and minutes from city council meetings, we ­will begin to identify and map many more actors than t­hose that made appearance at the groundbreaking ceremony. In addition to them, we begin to see how a building connects vari­ous heterogeneous actors in diverging ways: from sunlight and Level Acoustic’s Laboratorium voor Akoestiek and thresholds of 63 Hz, to Network Rail and historical arches, to the contract documents and World War I bombs, to the photography of Filip Dujardin, and the pronouncements of the Northern Power­house strategy from the former Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne. It is through the joint contributions of all ­these, and many more, that a building, “hangs” together at its edges, through its “stream of associations” rather than substantially, as a “fact” out ­there.11 The planning documents provide a scenography for us to understand this initial “hanging together” and the mundane practices that enable it; the documents explicate the vari­ous participants and their worlds enfolded in the building: the architects, local architectural firms and


Albena Yaneva and Brett Mommersteeg

landscape architects, the clients and developers, local, regional, and national politicians, user groups, structural, civil, fire, acoustic, and building ser­vices engineers, and vari­ous con­sul­tants. Each comes with their par­tic­u­lar concerns and prob­lems. We can additionally follow the pro­cess ethnographically by tracing how architects from OMA meet developers from Allied London, Manchester City Council members, advisors of Places ­Matter, RIBA, engineers of Level Acoustics, con­sul­tants of Charcoalblue, and representatives of Heritage ­England. Zooming into this trajectory, we see how specific concerns travel. If we zoom into the theater, we see it is more than a ­simple auditorium with a stage and orchestra pit. The theater gathers the architects, but also Charcoalblue, the theater design and acoustic con­sul­tants (concerned about the quality of the per­for­mance and acoustics, the correct number of seats, proper ingress and egress areas, the suitable dressing rooms for performers, the correct technology), as well as the acoustic engineers from Level Acoustics, who test the sound qualities of the theater in their Laboratorium voor Akoestiek and need to ensure that the noise threshold of 63 Hz is not exceeded, along with the quality of the acoustics, and that t­here are no noise leaks inside and outside the building. Another “­matter of concern” is the historical arches in the postindustrial urban context of Manchester; it not only attracts historians, concerned citizens, but also archaeologists, public realm con­sul­tants, and po­liti­cal bodies like Historic E ­ ngland. Each carry with them their own set of material concerns that need to be integrated into the trajectory of the building. In fact, taking the time to slowly pay attention to t­ hese varied realities of the building, another scenography begins to emerge. More and more lines are traced onto the imaginary map of the Factory’s design and development. Moving from document to document of the planning proposal, we are able to navigate through the “streams of associations” that allow a building-­in-­construction to hold together.12 ­Here we can see the populated building; each aspect of it is in the pro­cess of becoming and it hides a plethora of implicit values and lives that tangle in tension. Instead of analyzing how the Factory building w ­ ill “occupy” the empty ground “out ­there,” or secure a niche inside British society that ­will only elaborate a discourse that w ­ ill “reflect” certain cultural, stylistic, or aesthetic ideas, by slowly tracing its trajectory, we can show how each concern elaborates around itself its own spaces, times, and sociocultural meanings. Acoustics

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as a material concern, for instance, creates its own specific space-­time, through the vari­ous gatherings and meetings of participants in design and construction, which cannot be mea­sured through Euclidean geometry, through a tactile-­minded spatial apprehension; it also shapes its own sociocultural world, its own aesthetic of what constitutes good acoustics. Moreover, dif­fer­ent kinds of equipment and criteria are needed in order to evaluate an acoustic space-­time other than just through Euclidean geometry. If each concern, in other words, elicits its own aesthetics, of mixing both values of taste and judgement, but also of fact, and in addition, if all of ­those coordinates change as design and construction unfold, we witness that the Factory is entangled in t­hese moving pro­cesses that traverse it, and so is the nature of the aesthetic discourse that w ­ ill capture its meandering. HOW TO REINVENT AESTHETIC DISCOURSE?

Architectural lit­er­a­ture is commonly torn between two kinds of theory: one is more engineering-­like (how a building responds to material and financial constraints), and the other, more social or humanistic (how a building or an urban infrastructure expresses a certain social idea, style, or period). In other words, it reproduces the ambiguity of architecture as it is understood between its efficacy as a material object and as a symbol, or even more rudimentary: placed between form and function. The only way to get out of this dichotomy is to embrace a relational perspective, to borrow the methods of inquiry from the work in Science and Technology Studies, and the STS-­inspired ethnographies of architecture,13 which have successfully managed to extirpate themselves from the same quandary. This brings us to our proposal: let us place the notion of building-­qua-­ verb (planning, drawing, designing, fabricating, inhabiting) understood as distinct successive phases involving distinct and successive expertise into a very dif­fer­ent story, which is much more connected to the pro­cess philosophy pioneered by A. N. Whitehead.14 A building does not occupy a slice of space, a site, a niche, no more than the pro­cess of making it occupies a slice of time. If we follow buildings as “­matters of concern” (the Stata and its pro­cess of contestation, the zigzagging trajectory of concerns around the Factory), we rather witness that buildings elaborate around themselves their own spaces, times, and socie­ties of interested parties. In order to innovate


Albena Yaneva and Brett Mommersteeg

aesthetic discourse, we should do for architecture something akin to what Whitehead has done to nature in his pro­cess philosophy. In other words, to enrich aesthetic discourse through “­matters of concern” means shifting from the detached contemplation of the many fragile ­humans of timeless and distant architectural objects to the entire ecol­ogy of a building-­on-­the-­move. What kind of aesthetic discourse is produced in ­these two distinct visual regimes, (1) the static images of the Strata building and the Factory site and (2) the fleeting cascades of images of design making and construction? In the first regime, a building or a site is presented as a fact, “out ­there,” and is complemented by active h ­ umans standing in front of or before them; the static scenes trigger conventional abstract words of aesthetic judgment and result in an aesthetic discourse separated from the objects to which they originally apply. Yet, “­matters of fact” are only a very partial, very polemical rendering of  “­matters of concern.” The aesthetic discourse that draws from “­matters of fact” w ­ ill be based on the bifurcation of observant and pro­cess, object and subject, and primary and secondary qualities. Therefore, buildings as “­matters of fact” are implausible, and lead t­ oward unrealistic interpretations of architecture. The discourse that accompanies them, we argued, remains detached from real­ity, as real­ity rather streams from “what is given in experience.” In the second visual regime, we witness a building as changing, evolving, and living, as a set of polemical and po­liti­cal “­matters of concern,” a situation where every­thing is up in the air, undecided and contested—­ concerns pile up, limitations change, new regulations emerge, clients’ moods vacillate, contestations appear, and briefs are amended. The related discourse ­will connect buildings to the complex unfolding pro­cesses of architecture making, and the contingency of design development and construction; the aesthetic judgement ­will account for buildings as forces that gather concerns and worlds, as moving trajectories. If the aesthetic discourse in the first regime takes us away from the facts, in the second regime, we get closer to the meticulous pro­cess of design making, contestation, and inhabitation and the many participants in them. We argue that an aesthetic discourse should seek to renew empiricism, rather than fight it.15 To enrich aesthetic discourse we should take into account “­matters of concern” in cultivating a stubbornly realist attitude—­to use W. James’s expression. Tracing the contested and hesitant pro­cess of design, construction,

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and inhabitation, the discourse produced ­will correspond to the highly complex, historically situated, and richly diverse nature of “­matters of concern.”16 It w ­ ill gain an ontological ground and narrative thickness, as opposed to the light “double-­click” explanations based on theological or foundational grounds. By renewing aesthetic discourse through “­matters of concern,” more attention ­will be given to the pro­cesses that made and continue to make a building work; this ­will condition an aesthetics based on movement, relationality, and life, as advocated by John Dewey.17 Its discourse ­will shift ­toward the modes of existence of many dif­fer­ent design and construction objects and aesthetics w ­ ill be tackled in a radically dif­fer­ent way, not as a subjective judgment attributed and thrown over objects, but rather as emerging within vari­ous situations of collective making or inhabitation; subjectivity w ­ ill emerge in addition, as a par­tic­u­lar mode of attachment that appears in the pro­cess of making, contesting, and developing design.18 What is the aesthetic scenography through which experience ­will capture “­matters of concern” and ­will serve as the basis of a renewed aesthetic discourse? First, we need to reflect carefully on how to construct an aesthetic discourse where architectural works w ­ ill ­matter rather than explaining them with the light frameworks of society and culture. We need to distinguish ­these layers in order to make sure that our approach registers that they ­matter for some ­people for whom they are the source of an intense interest, ­either in tracing the voices in a controversy19 or the oscillating building-­on-­the move.20 A renewed aesthetic discourse based on “­matters of concern” should make room for the cacophony of voices and disputes, like ­those around the Gehry or the Factory buildings, and as we do so, our aesthetics w ­ ill begin to acquire a thickness including all manifestations of affectedness and concern implicated in the buildings’ trajectories. In lieu of the light “double-­click” from architect to building to its expressions, we ­will have richly entangled images, full of voices and varied beings, multiple worlds and aesthetics, facts and values, natures and cultures, and the slow work of making sense of them. Second, how do we populate architectural “­matters of concern”? The archaism that pervades the current modes of repre­sen­ta­tion and aesthetic discourse generated in architectural media and journals arises from the fact that we are still portraying objectivity as if architectural objects w ­ ere mute and uncontested, as if they ­were never on the move. Yet, as seen through


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the Stata and the Factory buildings, they are, and ­every aspect of architectural technologies, materials, and design techniques become convoluted and controversial affairs. And, yet the discourse continues to represent them in the bifurcated manner of  “pure objects,” peaceful, standing out ­there.21 We need new ways to describe architectural works in a way to show the genuine assemblies necessary for the architectural object to come into being, mobilizing both new rhetorical and visual tools. This ­will allow us to talk about architectural objects without contradicting our daily design experience of making or inhabitation. The current developments of visualization technologies should enrich the repertoire of aesthetic discourse by capturing the objects alongside the means, the vehicles, the subsistence, and modes of objectivity and concerns through which a building comes together and maintains itself in existence. ­These questions ­will direct us ­toward another way of renewing aesthetic discourse: not by freeze-­framing buildings, but by accounting for duration, for transformation, and for all the changes of design, development, and inhabitation. Reluctant to contemplate bold and glamorous, yet immutable, pictures, we should rather engage in devising a discursive and visual style, as well as suitable narrative techniques that w ­ ill give justice to the complex nature of buildings as “­matters of concern.” NOTES

1. ​William M. Ivins Jr., Art and Geometry: A Study in Space Intuitions (New York: Dover, 1946). 2. ​Bruno Latour, “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam? From M ­ atters of Fact to ­Matters of Concern,” Critical Inquiry 30, no. 2 (2004): 225–248. 3. ​Ivins, Art and Geometry, 36. 4. ​This old philosophical divide is most clearly articulated in John Locke, An Essay Concerning H ­ uman Understanding (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1996 [1689]). For the diagnosis of this divide, see Alfred North Whitehead, The Concept of Nature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015 [1920]), what he has called the “bifurcation of nature.” 5. ​Latour, “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?,” 2004. 6. ​See the study of art historian Horst Bredekamp on how Gehry draws; the sketches of Gehry, he argued, are only apparently ­free; they acknowledge constraint by remaining tied to construction, and the contractual “circumstances” affect the drawn form. Horst Bredekamp, “Frank Gehry and the Art of Drawing,” in Gehry

The Unbearable Lightness of Architectural Aesthetic Discourse 231 Draws, ed. Mark Rappolt and Robert Violette (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press in association with Violette Editions, 2004), 24. 7. ​On OMA’s design approach and the active role that scale models play in this practice, see Albena Yaneva, Made by the Office for Metropolitan Architecture: An Ethnography of Design (Rotterdam: 010 Publishers, 2009); Albena Yaneva, Five Ways to Make Architecture Po­liti­cal. An Introduction to the Politics of Design Practice (London: Bloomsbury, 2017). 8. ​Ivins, Art and Geometry, 62. 9. ​Fred Hapgood, “MIT Builds Its Dream House,” Framingham 17, no.  15 (May 2004): 56–62; Thomas P. Hughes, “MIT Architecture and Values: Gehry’s Stata and Holl’s Simmons,” History and Technology 24, no. 3 (September 2008): 207–220; W. Mitchell, Imagining MIT: Designing a Campus for the Twenty-­First C ­ entury (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007); Nancy E. Joyce, Building Stata: The Design and Construction of Frank O. Gehry’s Stata Center at MIT (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004). 10. ​Peter Galison and Emily Thompson, The Architecture of Science (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999). 11. ​William James, Essays in Radical Empiricism (New York: Longmans, Green, 1912), 108. 12. ​James, Essays in Radical Empiricism, 108. 13. ​Bruno Latour and Albena Yaneva, “Give Me a Gun and I ­Will Make E ­ very Building Move: An ANT’s View of Architecture,” ARDETH 01 (2017): 103–112. 14. ​Alfred North Whitehead, Pro­cess and Real­ity: An Essay in Cosmology, eds. David Ray Griffin and Donald W. Sherburne (New York: The ­Free Press, 1978). 15. ​Bruno Latour, What Is the Style of ­Matters of Concern? (Assen, The Netherlands: Van Gorcum, 2008). 16. ​Latour, What Is the Style of ­Matters of Concern? 17. ​John Dewey, Art as Experience (New York: Perigee Books, 1980 [1934]). 18. ​See the work of phi­los­o­phers of art and technology: Gilbert Simondon, On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects, trans. Cecile Malaspina and John Rogove (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017); Étienne Souriau, “On the Work to Be Made,” in The Dif­fer­ent Modes of Existence, trans. Erik Beranek and Tim Howles (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015); Andre Leroi-­Gourhan, Milieu et Technique (Paris: Éditions Albin Michel, 1945). 19. ​Albena Yaneva, Mapping Controversies in Architecture (Burlington, UK: Ashgate, 2012). 20. ​Brett Mommersteeg, “Enacting the Po­liti­cal: Architectural Publics and Their Issues,” PhD diss., University of Manchester, forthcoming.


Albena Yaneva and Brett Mommersteeg

21. ​See Bruno Latour’s vari­ous works on the etymology of ­Thing as gatherings of concern in contradistinction to that of an object. Among ­others, Bruno Latour, “From Realpolitik to Dingpolitik or How to Make ­Things Public,” in Making ­Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy, eds. Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005), 14–41. BIBLIOGRAPHY

Bredekamp, Horst. “Frank Gehry and the Art of Drawing.” In Gehry Draws, edited by Mark Rappolt and Robert Violette. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press in association with Violette Editions, 2004. Dewey, John. Art as Experience. New York: Perigee Books, 1980 [1934]. Galison, Peter, and Emily Thompson. The Architecture of Science. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999. Hapgood, Fred. “MIT Builds Its Dream House.” Framingham 17, no. 15 (May 2004): 56–62. Hughes, Thomas P. “MIT Architecture and Values: Gehry’s Stata and Holl’s Simmons.” History and Technology 24, no. 3 (September 2008): 207–220. Ivins, William M., Jr., Art and Geometry: A Study in Space Intuitions. New York: Dover, 1946. James, William. Essays in Radical Empiricism. New York: Longmans, Green, 1912. Joyce, Nancy E. Building Stata: The Design and Construction of Frank O. Gehry’s Stata Center at MIT. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004. Latour, Bruno. “From Realpolitik to Dingpolitik or How to Make ­Things Public.” In Making ­Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy, edited by Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel, 14–41. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005. Latour, Bruno. What Is the Style of ­Matters of Concern? Assen, The Netherlands: Van Gorcum, 2008. Latour, Bruno. “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam? From ­Matters of Fact to ­Matters of Concern.” Critical Inquiry 30, no. 2 (2004): 225–248. Latour, Bruno, and Albena Yaneva. “Give Me a Gun and I ­Will Make ­Every Building Move: An ANT’s view of Architecture.” ARDETH 1 (2017): 103–112. Leroi-­Gourhan, Andre. Milieu et Technique. Paris: Éditions Albin Michel, 1945. Locke, John. An Essay Concerning H ­ uman Understanding. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1996 [1689]. Mitchell, W. Imagining MIT: Designing a Campus for the Twenty-­First ­Century. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007.

The Unbearable Lightness of Architectural Aesthetic Discourse 233 Mommersteeg, Brett. “Enacting the Po­liti­cal: Architectural Publics and Their Issues.” PhD diss., University of Manchester, forthcoming. Simondon, Gilbert. On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects. Translated by Cecile Malaspina and John Rogove. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017. Souriau, Étienne. “On the Work to Be Made.” In The Dif­fer­ent Modes of Existence. Translated by Erik Beranek and Tim Howles. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015. Whitehead, Alfred North. Pro­cess and Real­ity: An Essay in Cosmology. Edited by David Ray Griffin and Donald W. Sherburne. New York: The ­Free Press, 1978. Whitehead, Alfred North. The Concept of Nature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015 [1920]). Yaneva, Albena. Five Ways to Make Architecture Po­liti­cal. An Introduction to the Politics of Design Practice. London: Bloomsbury, 2017. Yaneva, Albena. Made by the Office for Metropolitan Architecture: An Ethnography of Design. Rotterdam: 010 Publishers, 2009. Yaneva, Albena. Mapping Controversies in Architecture. Burlington, UK: Ashgate, 2012.



For a steady mechanical pack mule, BigDog walks precariously at best (see figure 14.1). Although advertised as dynamically stable and superbly resilient, it is squeaky and loud; it seems to maneuver aimlessly before relocating its balance. The first four-­legged rough-­terrain robot to leave the lab and take on the real world,1 Boston Dynamic’s BigDog was rejected by US marines in 2015 b­ ecause, as they said, it was too loud and would give away their position.2 What is even more disturbing, other than the screechy noise of an adolescent wounded animal, is the fact that anyone encountering a BigDog is uncertain of w ­ hether it is an animal or a machine. In a battlefield, this ambiguity is common to both the e­ nemy and the offender. The two are strangely, albeit unwittingly, united by their common sensation of alienation, of not knowing what it is that they are confronting. BigDog’s legs are excerpted from a donkey, while the ­jumble of wires and mechanical gadgetry on its ­saddle are proof of its belonging to a long legacy of cybernetic animals and machines. Yet, BigDog is neither the repre­sen­ta­tion of a power­ful unyielding race­ horse, nor the prime savage supremacy of the centaur, resurged from Greek my­thol­ogy to bring unbridled chaos in combat. In fact, it looks quite ner­vous and fragile, anxious to restore its balance a­ fter consistently being pushed and abused by Boston Dynamic’s engineers.3 Arguably, the power of this strange mechanical life-­form is not redolent of its ability to stay erect, vertical to the ground, but of its continuous state of tumbling. Even more so, the commanding effect it has on viewers is unrelated to the creature’s accomplishments of demanding tasks, but its disturbing resemblance to useless features and characteristics of living organisms, such as the chicken’s ability to keep its head straight, while the rest of its body is


Lydia Kallipoliti

Figure 14.1 BigDog by Boston Dynamics, ­under a contract with the Defense Advanced Research Proj­ects Agency to make a Legged Squad Support System (LS3). The program’s goal was to develop a walking quadruped platform that w ­ ill augment squads by carry­ing traditional and new equipment autonomously and w ­ ill be capable of managing complex terrains. Date of photo­graph: February 11, 2010.WENN Ltd/Alamy Stock Photo. Courtesy of Boston Dynamics.

moving.4 This commanding effect is not simply a visual categorical mismatch, similar to descriptions of monsters and aberrations as heterogeneous entities that stich together dif­fer­ent creatures. Possibly, Boston Dynamic’s robot series, acquired by Google in 2013, renders more than anything aesthetic preoccupations on the replication of life, in all its flaws and weaknesses, in all the tumbling effects of creatures that might fall, yet try very hard not to. In fact, BigDog might as well be disturbing, b­ ecause abstract behavioral aesthetic decisions might have preceded its operational protocols. Considering the remarks of art historian Heinrich Wölfflin that “we judge ­every object by analogy with our own bodies,”5 BigDog is unsettling b­ ecause it is a type of self-­mirroring. It reveals and proj­ects anthropomorphic characteristics of a con­temporary subject: hysterically tumbling and staying afloat throughout adverse and changing external conditions, by reor­ga­niz­ing its internal structure and operative protocol. This questionable species, partially primal and partially produced with advanced technology, reflects in many ways a con­temporary body of work in architectural discourse that seems particularly relevant in a time of

BigDog, or, The Precarious Aesthetics of Tumbling


ideological diffusion, when clusters of positions and ideas emerge precariously, not as tactfully positioned manifestos, but more so, as unnerving life-­forms. BigDog may also serve as an analogy for a con­temporary body of design work, both in its figural character and in its metabolism. With the increasing integration of performative, environmental, and mechanical functions in building and urban systems, architecture has become itself a strange life-­form that deploys ­humans to nourish it.6 The projection of a body to formal organ­ization, in­de­pen­dently of ­whether this body is h ­ uman, animal, or mechanical, is as longstanding as architecture itself. Vitruvius made a sequence of claims on proportion, symmetry, and harmony comparing the ­human body directly to a building,7 while Leon Battista Alberti became animalistic in De re aedifactoria, as Caroline O’Donnell argues, understanding architecture as analogous to an animal, both as an embodiment of orga­nizational princi­ples, as well as architecture’s relationships to climatic and site-­related givens.8 The question of balance was key to Alberti—­even-­numbered supports for buildings analogous to four-­legged animals—­and in many re­spects foundational to Re­nais­sance humanist discourse establishing buildings as w ­ hole, stable, and balanced bodies. As Anthony Vidler observes, the de­mo­li­tion of the classical body from its privileged place in architectural theory and practice came to foster an aesthetic of calculated disequilibrium in the 1980s and 1990s.9 The notion of the dismembered, fragmented, and composite body, most evident in Donna Haraway’s cyborg,10 rendered an architecture that resisted utopia and w ­ holeness as a generic idea, proposing in its place biotic components—­fragments—­that can be interfaced and interconnected in endless ways. For Haraway, the cyborg reversed and displaced the hierarchical dualisms of naturalized identities11 and was detached from biological pro­cesses, like birth. As easy as it would be to claim the BigDog as a direct descendant of the cyborg, a hybrid of machine and organism, the BigDog implies a dif­fer­ent body. It is not a renegade body that asserts itself in the world, allowing the indeterminate to subsist as Deleuze argues for monsters;12 it is a destabilized body, arguably a hysteric life-­form that one might want to pet. Unlike performative machines that are mimicking efficient natu­ral functions, BigDog is tumbling; arguably, it is not always taking the most efficient route, but instead trying to read the terrain it walks on, mimicking the feats and failures of donkeys. The very concept of biomimicry subordinates


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technical inventions to the supremacy of natu­ral mechanisms, like self-­ filling ­water ­bottles, and other ­water collection systems that copy. The Stenocara beetle that harvests fog ­water on its back for ­future scarcity is a prime example of biomimicry for a number of inventions including self-­filling w ­ ater b­ ottles that replicate this astounding efficiency. And yet, the replica is more naturalized than the Stenocara beetle’s ­water collection systems, precisely ­because it mimics a donkey’s stubbornness, distress, and re­sis­tance beyond the teleology of per­for­mance (carry­ing load to a certain location). In this sense, the BigDog overcomes nature, while in search of its own agency in the universe, while several computational feedback loops are at play. It is then its flaws, pathologies, and state of indeterminacy that render BigDog disturbingly life-­like and hysterically dexterous in recognizing its terrain and opponents. BIGDOG’S LEGACY: ANTHROPOMORPHIC CYBERNETIC MACHINES

Dexterity, rather than mechanical strength, was vital to Boston Dynamic’s funding from the Defense Advanced Research Proj­ects Agency, l­ater acquired by Google X in 2013. The US Navy and Army have been consistently funding robotic animal research for several de­cades, and most importantly it funded BigDog’s parent (or grandparent) the “Walking Truck” in 1969, which was developed at General Electric (see figure 14.2). It was a vehicle with extra limbs in­ven­ted by American engineer Ralph Mosher, who pioneered an extensive investigation on Cybernetic Anthropomorphous Machines (CAMs) at General Electric from the 1950s to the 1970s. Specifically, Mosher’s CAMs included “Yes Man,” which was featured in Life magazine in 1956 (figure 14.3) with a robot assisting a lady into her coat, “Handyman” in 1958—­a set or robotic arms controlled by a distance from an operator, the walking machine called “The Pediculator” in 1962, the four-­legged “Walking Truck” in 1969, and fi­nally “HardiMan,” which was an acronym for “­Human Augmentation Research and Development Investigation,” plus Man from MANipulator. “HardiMan” evolved between 1965 and 1971 as a series of experiments with powered exoskeleton frameworks enveloping ­humans; whereas “Handyman” was remotely controlled, the user would sit inside the skeleton of  “HardiMan,” directly amplifying the wearer’s lifting ability and strength.

BigDog, or, The Precarious Aesthetics of Tumbling


Figure 14.2 General Electric prototype for a versatile walking truck developed by Ralph Mosher and R. A. Liston in 1969. Special thanks to Museum of Innovation and Science archivist Chris Hunter. Courtesy of the Museum of Innovation and Science in Schenectady, New York.

Although the original interest for ­these robotic prototypes was to perform mechanical tasks in hazardous radioactive areas and although they ­were built in the engineering laboratory for General Electric’s Aircraft Nuclear Propulsion Department ­under an Air Force contract, Mosher distilled in his line of prototypes additional features to make them more life-­like and to integrate a series of ­human errors. To do this, Mosher did not work on autonomous CAMs, but on machines that w ­ ere tied to the ­human ner­vous system. Arguably, this bonding of man and machine was the only way to replicate the logic of error and hesitation. Therefore, all CAM movements ­were controlled by a master user in a careful puppeteering act. Mosher envisioned this type of union—­our neurons translating desire into kinesis—as a wedding of sorts. Man and machine ­were combined into an intimate, symbiotic unit that performed essentially as one


Lydia Kallipoliti

Figure 14.3 General Electric prototype for a “Yes-­Man” teleoperator developed by Ralph Mosher in 1956. This image was published in Life magazine on May 28, 1956, with the title “Chivalrous Robot.” This image is public domain. Courtesy of the Museum of Innovation and Science in Schenectady, New York.

wedded system. The wedding was further consummated by the feature of “force feedback” that Mosher applied to all CAMs. In his machines, a mediated level of force was fed back to the ­human operator to give him a sense of the environmental interaction of the limbs ­under control.13 A second feature was control and dexterity. In Mosher’s words, “the cybernetic anthropomorphous machines (CAMs) ­will respond to irregular force and position patterns with the alacrity of man’s information and control system coupled with the machine’s power and ruggedness.”14 Despite their

BigDog, or, The Precarious Aesthetics of Tumbling


strength, CAMs w ­ ere also deft and polite. In 1956, Life magazine published “Yes Man,” helping pretty Ruth Feldheim into her coat very ­gently. In his vari­ous papers at General Electric, Mosher created a series of diagrams visualizing the detrimental effects of strong robots lacking h ­ uman sensing; in his sketches, h ­ uman motor systems would aid robots to respond to feedback forces that must be interpreted.15 To achieve this kind of tactical dexterity, ­behind the scenes, one would see the inventor quite distressed in a laborious and burdensome effort to control the CAM. Along with the key feature of force feedback, it was critical that Mosher’s CAMs would not only mirror the actions of h ­ umans and animals, but would also look like them. It was vital to represent with wires and connections the delicate ner­vous systems as translated into servo-­mechanical functions as proof of concept. General Electric’s press release for their specialty Materials H ­ andling Products Division announced the following: “The systems are cybernetic b­ ecause man is retained in them and his brain is used to provide the computer function. An additional result of the intimate marriage of man and machine is that the machines are usually man-­ like or anthropomorphic in form, although the machine you are seeing ­today resembles a very dexterous elephant rather than a man. As a result, ­these systems are able to provide significant extensions to man’s strength, reach, and ruggedness while truly utilizing his dexterity, brainpower, and versatility.”16 General Electric hired an industrial designer, Earl Stewart, to work closely with Mosher in order to direct the architectural form of the CAM prototypes. In the machine series, the architecture takes on the form of the inner workings of t­ hings, the “guts,” the circuitry and the tubes that materialize necessary connections; it exposes plumbing and circuity and develops an aesthetic proposition from the per­for­mance of circulation and system feedback loops. The lurking image equivalent to this requisition is Reyner Banham’s famous environmental ­bubble and the baroque tower of mechanical gadgetry that he proposed in collaboration with Francois Dallegret.17 This type of environmental expressionism is still endeared as proof of concept if the machines do not work that well, where ­there is no intent to mimic nature formally or functionally, but to expose the mechanical and chemical viscera of ecosystems and buildings. In many ways, the concerns and desires that Mosher distilled in CAMs ­were transposed to Boston Dynamic’s robot series, yet the feature of the ­human operator directly controlling the robot was removed and replaced


Lydia Kallipoliti

with algorithms for enhanced legibility of external terrain and autonomous response. With the deduction of the h ­ uman operator, the robots evolved into something even more absorbed in the agency of a life in search of its own language and protocols, in all its uncertainty, ambiguity, and indeterminacy. As much as sensor-­based controls unlock the capabilities of complex computational protocols, they also reflect in parallel a regression to earlier life stages, a term borrowed from psychoanalysis. Our con­temporary moment shares surprisingly much with the lineage of t­ hese unstable, tumbling, mechanical, animal-­like life-­forms and their mixture of primal features with advanced technology. PSYCHOANALYZING BIGDOG: REGRESSION, DE-­ERECTION, AND PART-­OBJECTS

In analyzing BigDog’s primal animalistic features, psychoanalysis—­a discipline that allegedly deals predominantly with abstract or invisible entities—­might offer us insight into the nature of material and behavioral phenomena. Tumbling could be correlated to what psychoanalyst Peter Giovacchini phrases as forces of regression: “a loss of functional unity and vari­ous ego systems, both sensory and executive, so they operate in an asynchronous fashion.”18 Regression signals a return to previous life stages, where the relationship between the subject and its environment was structured in dif­fer­ent terms. Hungarian psychoanalyst Sandor Ferenczi rivals that regression as the reoccurrence of a “protopsyche,” a primitive stage of development to which the psyche resorts, as in the return of a nascent global era, like the glacial epoch.19 This return is of such dramatic and traumatic nature that the subject is diffused in space and time, whereas it distils entirely dif­fer­ent organic be­hav­iors and capacities leaping from the ­mental to the somatic. In psychoanalytic terms, conversion symptoms are defined as “physiological reflexes” in the primitive realm of the “protopsyche,” where the unconscious wish leaps across to unconscious motility. In spatial terms, regression can be interpreted as the dissemination of agency in space to a constellation of asynchronous movements, manifest in the precarious aesthetics of BigDog’s tumbling. But beyond simply a feature, tumbling represents more the idea of constant feedback in reading and rereading the terrain and its external variables. To accomplish this, the mechanical animal-­like body loses its firm

BigDog, or, The Precarious Aesthetics of Tumbling


structure, while its organs start to become indistinct. As Ferenczi argues, “the hysterically reacting body could be described as semi-­fluid, that is to say, as a substance whose previous rigidity and uniformity have been partially redissolved into a psychic state, capable of adapting.”20 BigDog’s abdication of an erect posture signals a regression into earlier epochs and a directional shift from the vertical to the horizontal. In spatial terms, “de-­ erection” can be interpreted as a negotiation between axes, where it is unclear if a subject expands to a horizontal or a vertical direction. We may envision as a visual analogue a pro­cess of devolution from the posture of the fully grown erect man to the adolescent, the child, and fi­nally the newly born infant, whose skeletal structure and bodily tissue are so soggy and flaccid that it cannot carry its weight upright. Tumbling suggests that the subject undergoes this pro­cess of fundamental devolvement. In the course of this pro­cess, the body returns to an infantile state and loses its point of gravity. It is noteworthy to recall ­here that the discipline of artistic anatomy in the late nineteenth-­century was founded on the presumption that man stands erect. The degradation of this posture that attributed dignity to men undermined convictions about his muscular structure and skeleton.21 Salvador Dalí recognized similar de-­erected formations in the architecture of Art Nouveau, coining them as “hysterico-­epileptic.” Dalí praised Art Nouveau with the the highest kudos, even claiming it as the “most original and most extraordinary phenomenon of art,” b­ ecause of its “extra-­plastic character,” able to relinquish erection and rigidity.22 For Dalí, this much-­ desired plasticity was a type of  “death wish,” or as he ­later explained, an “edible wish:” the desire of architecture to be devoured and eaten away. This quality, as Dalí frames it, is apparently not due to the curved forms of Art Nouveau ornaments that one can associate with food, but to the ornaments’ almost animate psychopathological desire to melt within their environment. Edibility can also be explained in the “softness” of certain ele­ments, especially structural ele­ments: if a column for instance, which should be rigid and load bearing, reverts to a flaccid condition, it becomes incapable of carry­ing its own load and “eats away” its own weight and meaning. With Dalí’s observations in mind, “cathexis” can be introduced to describe more fully the condition of de-­erection, as it relates to directional paths of energy channels in an object, ­either animate or inanimate. This psychoanalytic term, which broadly refers to libidinal energy charge, has often been described by Sigmund Freud as the libido’s manufacturing of


Lydia Kallipoliti

energies that, if blocked, build up at certain locations and require release in alternative outlets;23 such detours can potentially lead to the formation of disabling symptoms. Yet, etymologically, the term “cathexis,” originating from the Greek word “κάθεξις,” implicates the vertical dimension, as in words of the same kinship, such as cathode, cathisma, and cathodal. Translated into spatial terms, this f­ amily of words denotes the concentration, accumulation, holding, and retention of ­mental energy in a par­tic­ u­lar channel ­until it can be released ­toward the direction of a specific path. In short, they announce that point where m ­ atter accumulates, and beyond a certain threshold, it begins to shape and articulate a vertical axis. In light of Freud’s analy­sis on the distribution of libidinal charges, the tumbling movement of the BigDog might also raise questions of a peculiar eroticism. How may one proj­ect desire onto a species that does not reproduce? Architectural critic Neil Leach, in his interpretation of Walter Benjamin, argues that species which adapt to their environment for reasons beyond self-­defense see the environment as a source of empowerment and express desire as an act of innervation, a “creative act of self-­expression against a given background. And it is precisely this active—­rather than defensive—­form of mimesis that offers a basis for creative expression in art.”24 Innervation then adverts the transposition of energy from the vital organs to peripheral ele­ments, like legs and limbs that become, in psychoanalytic terms, objects of  “genitalization.”25 Broadly speaking, the phenomenon of genitalization refers to bodily zones, which if charged with libidinal energy, start behaving exactly like genitals.26 According to Ferenczi, any part of a body could possibly be reconstructed as a genital and reborn from “apparently indifferent bodily parts,”27 through some idiosyncrasy in the subject’s development.28 Put differently, unconscious, repressed desires are “displaced”29 and transposed to phenomenally “indifferent bodily parts,” contributing to a precarious appearance of ambiguity in an object’s directionality, intent, and stability. In the course of this devolution, certain organs and parts attain abnormal functions for their location in the topography of the body-­space, turning the body as w ­ hole to a body as a congregation of  “part-­objects.”30 BigDog’s investment in its animalistic origins, which are manifest materially and behaviorally via advanced computational protocols and algorithms, parallels the synchronized attentiveness, in the work of an emerging group of architects and theorists, on technical innovation and primal sources.31 Arguably the design of ­these robotic prototypes is linked to

BigDog, or, The Precarious Aesthetics of Tumbling


anthropomorphism, both formally, as well as in the ability of developing machines with primeval interactions, capable of experiencing empathy—­a sense of identification with other subjects of the exterior world. Then, if ­future machines are informed by premodern subjects, possibly the division that Reyner Banham announced in 1960, the one between tradition and technology, or between “science” and “history,” as he phrased it, has been eviscerated.32 If Banham devised a divide of architecture looking forward— in science, and architecture looking backward—in history, he was firmly located in a point of linear time, in 1960. And as Vidler has argued, during the last fifty years or more, based on this division, the profession needed to redefine its limits in the midst of ­these competing bids for intellectual domination.33 BigDog, nevertheless, as well as a body of design work that is its kin, implies an arrow of time that has been skewed; it reveals a peculiar defensive reaction against the fear of the unknown, manifest by projecting the ­future not as an entirely new course of events but as an organic thread to primitive instincts. In this sense, the disturbing aesthetics of BigDog divulge our deeply rooted sentimentality in a vain search of primeval ancestral origins, or the pathology of pastoralism as Leo Marx put it in his nominal book The Machine in the Garden.34 Marx conjures the writing of Ortega y Gasset in the 1930s and his depiction of a new kind of subject rising up in the civilized world, the Naturmensch, the naturalized man. “This new man wants a motor-­car, and enjoys it, but he believes that it is the spontaneous fruit of an Edenic tree. In the depths of this soul he is unaware of the artificial, almost incredible character of civilization, and does not extend his enthusiasm for the instruments to the princi­ples that make them pos­si­ble.”35 The idealization of primitive conditions of life also remained undefended to Freud. In the case of the BigDog, it could arguably account for the necessity to overlay advanced algorithms for rough terrain navigation with the natu­ral movements of four-­legged animals. Then it is the primitive tumbling of this advanced autonomous robot that gratifies the viewer’s need for a phantom truth: a stretched notion of time between the past and the ­future. BigDog’s tumbling anthropomorphism has urgency ­today. Architecture critics have never ceased to venture in new projections of the body to architectural form, but our con­temporary moment shares surprisingly much with the lineage of a primal, unstable, yet skilled tumbling life form that asserts itself, albeit hysterically. Is BigDog reflective of a modern subject that is tumbling and navigating precariously in rough terrains? T ­ oday, the only way to navigate through


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the unimaginable carcass of information we receive, store, and upload daily is relative to oneself. Networks, flows, and connections between individual units are on their way to extinction. ­There is only a hyperobject, as Timothy Morton has proposed, which is constantly moving;36 and it does not allow you to understand it, which fundamentally alters your mode of existence in space. You are lost ­unless your only point of origin for navigation is yourself alone. This tumbling corresponds to an ontoge­ne­tic, and phyloge­ne­tic, stage of development (the stage of the “protopsyche”), an operative self-­containment, at which the organism has control over nothing but itself. Therefore, the subject enters a state of precarious tumbling relative to its surroundings, a voluntary sense of loss relative to its context. To navigate a rough terrain ­today, one must use only direction from the self as pa­ram­e­ter. In this sense, our need for embeddedness in the world might be obsolete. NOTES

1. ​“BigDog,” Boston Dynamics, accessed August 21, 2017, https://­​ 2. ​Alex Hern, “US Marines Reject BigDog Robotic Pack­horse ­Because It’s Too Noisy,” The Guardian, December 30, 2015, https://­​ nology/2015/dec/30/us-­marines-­reject​-­bigdog-​­robot​-­boston-­dynamics​-­ls3​-­too​ -­noisy. 3. ​This is the remark of TechCrunch’s Brian Heater in his interview with Boston Dynamics founder and CEO Marc Raibert. “Boston Dynamics CEO Marc Raibert Demos the Spot at Disrupt,” accessed August 22, 2017, https://­techcrunch​ .com/2016/09/14/boston-­dynamics-­ceo​-­marc-­raibert-­demos-­the-­spot-­at-­disr upt/. 4. ​Marc Raibert, Boston Dynamic’s CEO and founder, explains that replicating the chicken’s reactions was critical to the development of SpotMini, BigDog’s sibling successor robot. “Boston Dynamics CEO Marc Raibert Demos the Spot at Disrupt.” 5. ​This is the observation of Anthony Vidler, The Architectural Uncanny: Essays in the Modern Unhomely (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992), 86–87. See also Heinrich Wölfflin, Re­nais­sance and Baroque, trans. Kathrin Simon (London: Collins, 1964), 77. 6. ​Beatriz Colomina and Mark Wigley, Are We H ­ uman? Notes on an Archaeology of Design (Zu­r ich: Lars Müller Publishers, 2016), 75. 7. ​Vitruvius writes that “without symmetry and proportion, t­here can be no princi­ples in the design of any t­ emple; that is, if t­ here is no precise relation between

BigDog, or, The Precarious Aesthetics of Tumbling


its members, as in the case of a well-­shaped man.” See Caroline O’Donnell, Niche Tactics: Generative Relationships between Architecture and Site (New York: Routledge, 2015), 192; Dalibor Vesely, “The Architectonics of Embodiment,” in Body and Building: Essays on the Changing Relation of Body and Architecture, eds. George Dodds and Robert Tavernor (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002), 29; Vitruvius, De Architectura, book III, chapter 1, trans. Morris Hickey Morgan (London: Dover, 1960). 8. ​O’Donnell, Niche Tactics, 192–193. 9. ​Vidler, Architectural Uncanny, xii. 10. ​Donna Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology and Socialist-­ Feminism in the Late Twentieth ­Century,” in Simians, Cyborgs and ­Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York: Routledge, 1991). 11. ​Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs and ­Women, 175. 12. ​Gilles Deleuze argues on monsters: “To be a monster is first of all to be composite. And it’s true that I have written on apparently diverse subjects. But ‘monster’ has another meaning: something or someone whose extreme determinacy allows the indeterminate wholly to subsist (for example, a monster à la Goya). In this sense, thought itself is a monster.” Gilles Deleuze interviewed by Arnaud Villani in November 1981 and appeared in Arnaud Villani, La guêpe et l’orchidée (Paris: Belin, 1999), 129–131. Also in R. Mackay, COLLAPSE III (Falmouth, MA: Urbanomic, 2007). 13. ​Engadget, “GE’s Bringing Good ­Things, and Massive Robots, to Life,” accessed June 26, 2016, https://­​good​ thingsandmassiverobotstolife/. 14. ​Ralph S. Mosher, “Handyman to Hardiman,” SAE Technical Paper 670088, Research and Development Center, General Electric Co., doi:10.4271/670088, 1967. 15. ​Mosher, “Handyman to Hardiman.” 16. ​General Electric’s press release for their specialty Materials H ­ andling Products Division. General Electric’s Radio TV Report for WCBS and CBS Network (April 2, 1966). Archives of General Electric at the Museum of Innovation and Science, Schenectady, New York. 17. ​Reyner Banham’s concept of Un-­house first appeared in his famous article “A Home Is Not a House.” In it he writes, “When your h ­ ouse contains such a complex of piping, flues, ducts, wires, lights, outlets, ovens, sinks, refuse disposers, hi-fi reverberators, antennae, conduits, freezers, heaters—­when it contains so many ser­vices that the hardware could stand up by itself without any assistance from the ­house, why have a ­house to hold it up?” In Reyner Banham, “A Home Is Not a House,” Art in Amer­i­ca 53 (April 1965): 45–48. 18. ​Peter L. Giovacchini, “Somatic Symptoms and the Transference Neurosis,” International Journal of Psychoanalysis 44 (1963): 148.


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19. ​Sandor Ferenczi, “The Phenomena of Hysterical Materialization,” in Theory and Technique of Psychoanalysis, ed. John Rickman, trans. Jane Isabel Suttie (New York: Basic Books, 1952), 97. 20. ​Sándor Ferenczi and Judith Dupont, The Clinical Diary of Sandor Ferenczi, trans. Michael Balint and Nicola Zarday Jackson (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988), 7. 21. ​See the following quote in an artistic manual by Arthur Thomson: “Man stands alone erect. Man owes much of his dignity to the erect posture. In this re­spect he differs from all other animals. The gait of ­these creatures is shuffling and the balance of their figure unsteady; while their w ­ hole appearance, when they attempt to walk upright suggests but a feeble imitation of the grace and dignity of man’s carriage. The assumption by man of the erect position has led to very remarkable changes in the form of his skeleton and the arrangement and development of his muscles. In his growth from the ovum to the adult, he passes through many stages. In some of ­these, the ascent from lower forms is clearly demonstrated. This statement holds true, not only in regards to structure, but also in regards to function.” Arthur Thomson, A Handbook of Anatomy for Art Students (Oxford: Clarendon, 1906), 1. 22. ​See Haim Finkelstein, The Collected Writings of Salvador Dalí (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 194. 23. ​Paul Federn, “Sándor Ferenczi,” International Journal of Psychoanalysis 14 (1933): 478–479. 24. ​Neil Leach, “Vitruvius Crucifixus: Architecture, Mimesis and the Death Instinct,” in Body and Building: Essays on the Changing Relation of Body and Architecture, eds. George Dodds and Robert Tavernor (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002), 220–221. 25. ​See Federn, “Sándor Ferenczi,” 478–479. 26. ​The phenomenon of  “genitalization” is expressed precisely in t­ hese terms by Freud. He suggests that certain parts of the body are imbued already with potential to behave like genitals. He writes: “In that neurosis repression affects most of all the ­actual genital zones and t­ hese transmit their susceptibility to stimulation to other erotoge­ne­tic zones (normally neglected in adult life), which then behave exactly like genitals. But besides thus, precisely as in the case of sucking, any other part of the body can acquire the same susceptibility to stimulation as is possessed by the genitals and can become an erotoge­ne­tic zone. Erotoge­ne­tic and hysterogenic zones show the same characteristics.” See Sigmund Freud, Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, trans. James Strachey (New York: Basic Books, 1962), 49–50. 27. ​Ferenczi, “Phenomena of Hysterical Materialization,” 90. 28. ​Federn, “Sándor Ferenczi,” 478.

BigDog, or, The Precarious Aesthetics of Tumbling


29. ​Laplanche defines “displacement” as an idea being detached from its main focus of interest and passing on to other ideas, which ­were originally of ­little intensity but which are related to the first idea by a chain of associations. This phenomenon, though particularly noticeable in the analy­sis of dreams, is also to be observed in the formation of psychoneurotic symptoms and, in a general way, in ­every unconscious formation. See Jean Laplanche and J. B. Pontalis, The Language of Psycho-­Analysis, trans. Donald Nicholson-­Smith (New York: Norton, 1973), 121. 30. ​Federn, “Sándor Ferenczi,” 478. 31. ​A similar argument was made by Dora Epstein Jones and Bryony Roberts who edited Log, no. 31, entitled “New Ancients.” In their statement, the editors argue that ­there is a “sudden reappearance of history in the work of an emerging group of architects, curators, theorists, and, of course, historians,” parallel to the seventeenth-­century quarrel between the Ancients and Moderns at the Academie Française. The “New Ancients” offer “a look into history’s history as a way to circumvent the paradigm of constant mechanical innovation.” 32. ​This division was famously announces in Reyner Banham’s “Stocktaking” series for Architectural Review. See Reyner Banham, “Architecture a­ fter 1960” ( January 1960); “Stocktaking” (February 1960); “The Science Side” (March 1960); “The ­Future of Universal Man” (April 1960); “History ­under Revision” (May 1960); “Propositions” ( June 1960). 33. ​See also Anthony Vidler, “Trou­bles in Theory Part III: The ­Great Divide: Technology vs. Tradition,” Architectural Review ( July 24, 2012). 34. ​Leo Marx, The Machine in the Garden; Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in Amer­ i­ca (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1964). 35. ​Marx, Machine in the Garden, 7–8, quoting José Ortega y Gasset, The Revolt of the Masses (New York: New American Library, 1950). 36. ​See Timothy Morton, The Ecological Thought (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010), 130; Timothy Morton, Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecol­ogy ­after the End of the World (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013). BIBLIOGRAPHY

Banham, Reyner. “A Home Is Not a House.” Art in Amer­i­ca 53 (April 1965): 45–48. Banham, Reyner. “Architecture ­after 1960.” Architectural Review, January 1960. Banham, Reyner. “History ­under Revision.” Architectural Review, May 1960. Banham, Reyner. “Propositions,” Architectural Review, June 1960. Banham, Reyner. “Stocktaking.” Architectural Review, February 1960. Banham, Reyner. “The ­Future of Universal Man.” Architectural Review, April 1960.


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Banham, Reyner. “The Science Side.” Architectural Review, March 1960. “BigDog.” Boston Dynamics. Accessed August 21, 2017. https://­​ Colomina, Beatriz, and Mark Wigley. Are We H ­ uman? Notes on an Archaeology of Design. Zu­r ich: Lars Müller Publishers, 2016. Dillet, Romain. “Boston Dynamics CEO Marc Raibert Demos the Spot at Disrupt.” TechCrunch. Accessed August 22, 2017. https://­​/2016​ /09/14/boston-­dynamics-­ceo-­marc-­raibert-­demos-­the-­spot-­at-­disrupt/. Federn, Paul. “Sándor Ferenczi.” International Journal of Psychoanalysis 14 (1933). Ferenczi, Sandor. “The Phenomena of Hysterical Materialization.” In Theory and Technique of Psychoanalysis, edited by John Rickman, translated by Jane Isabel Suttie. New York: Basic Books, 1952. Ferenczi, Sándor, and Judith Dupont. The Clinical Diary of Sandor Ferenczi. Translated by Michael Balint and Nicola Zarday Jackson. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988. Freud, Sigmund. Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality. Translated by James Strachey. New York: Basic Books, 1962. General Electric. Press release for specialty Materials H ­ andling Products Division. General Electric’s Radio TV Report for WCBS and CBS Network, April 2, 1966. Archives of General Electric, Museum of Innovation and Science, Schenectady, New York. Giovacchini, Peter L. “Somatic Symptoms and the Transference Neurosis.” International Journal of Psychoanalysis 44 (1963): 148. Haim, Finkelstein. The Collected Writings of Salvador Dalí. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998. Haraway, Donna. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-­ Feminism in the Late Twentieth C ­ entury.” In Simians, Cyborgs and ­Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge, 1991. Hern, Alex. “US Marines Reject BigDog Robotic Pack­horse ­because It’s Too Noisy.” Guardian, December 30, 2015. https://­​ ogy/2015/dec/30/s-­marines-­reject-­bigdog-­robot-­boston-­dynamics-­ls3-­too-­noisy. Laplanche, Jean, and J. B. Pontalis. The Language of Psycho-­Analysis. Translated by Donald Nicholson-­Smith. New York: Norton, 1973. Leach, Neil. “Vitruvius Crucifixus: Architecture, Mimesis and the Death Instinct.” In Body and Building: Essays on the Changing Relation of Body and Architecture, edited by George Dodds and Robert Tavernor, 220–221. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002. Mackay, R. COLLAPSE III. Falmouth, MA: Urbanomic, 2007.

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Marx, Leo. The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in Amer­i­ca. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1964. Morton, Timothy. Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecol­ogy ­after the End of the World. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013. Morton, Timothy. The Ecological Thought. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010. Mosher, Ralph S. “Handyman to Hardiman.” SAE Technical Paper 670088. Research and Development Center, General Electric Co., 1967. doi:10.4271​ /​670088. O’Donnell, Caroline. Niche Tactics: Generative Relationships between Architecture and Site. New York: Routledge, 2015. Thomson, Arthur. A Handbook of Anatomy for Art Students. Oxford: Clarendon, 1906. Turi, John. “GE’s Bringing Good ­Things, and Massive Robots, to Life.” Engadget. Accessed June  26, 2016. https://­­man​ -­amplifying-­robots/. Vesely, Dalibor. “The Architectonics of Embodiment.” In Body and Building: Essays on the Changing Relation of Body and Architecture, edited by George Dodds and Robert Tavernor. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002. Vidler, Anthony. The Architectural Uncanny: Essays in the Modern Unhomely. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992. Vidler, Anthony. “Trou­bles in Theory Part III: The G ­ reat Divide: Technology vs Tradition.” Architectural Review, July 24, 2012. Villani, Arnaud. La guêpe et l’orchidée. Paris: Belin, 1999. Vitruvius. De Architectura. Book III, chapter 1. Translated by Morris Hickey Morgan. London: Dover, 1960. Wölfflin, Heinrich. Re­nais­sance and Baroque. Translated by Kathrin Simon. London: Collins, 1964.

15  FERAL ARCHITECTURE Ariane Lourie Harrison


We use the term “feral” to refer to animals that are wild or untamed, also to animals that have abandoned a domesticated environment for the wilderness. Yet in the etymology of this word lies another meaning derived from the Latin feralis, meaning funerary, or belonging to the dead.1 In ­today’s Anthropocene period, in which h ­ umans’ role as the largest evolutionary force on the planet coincides with the current sixth mass extinction event for nonhuman species, ­these two sets of meanings take on a distinctive resonance. In one word, we find ­these qualities—­animal, wildness, funerary rite, and the dead—­tangling together to invoke the losses caused by the acidifying oceans, heating atmospheres, and planetary urbanization of the Anthropocene. I propose to mine t­hese paired meanings to develop an aesthetic suitable for architecture in a period characterized by human-­caused environmental destruction on a massive scale. A feral architecture would thus convey the critique and question of how an ecological awareness—­one tinged with sadness, inevitability, and the confrontation of ­actual loss—­can shape the theory and practice of ­human building, an activity that in a broad sense has caused the loss. This aesthetic brings the human/nonhuman relationship into greater visibility within an ecological consciousness specific to our Anthropocene period. An argument made by many thinkers critical of anthropocentrism is that aesthetics represents a fundamental communicative value between h ­ umans as well as between and among nonhumans. In this essay I w ­ ill focus on the qualities of a feral aesthetic rather than rehearse why aesthetic means are valuable in producing visibility for nonhumans.2


Ariane Lourie Harrison

In proposing what might constitute a feral architecture, this essay focuses on the characteristics of the feral as an aesthetic by turning to eco-­aesthetic theory as well as architectural theory and practice. The proposed feral aesthetic embraces the likelihood of environmental catastrophe, yet insists on remembering the d­ ying world. In this sense, the feral inscribes and anticipates loss, drawing on cultures of mourning and death, to incite our compassion—­perhaps our action—­for something that we are about to lose. VISIBILITY

Feral architecture leverages aesthetic and programmatic means to extend and make vis­i­ble a postanthropocentric ethical regard to nonhumans. Jacques Rancière’s distribution of the sensible describes how aesthetics have the potential to disrupt existing hierarchies: “The dream of a suitable po­liti­cal work of art is in fact the dream of disrupting the relationship between the vis­i­ble, the sayable, and the thinkable without having to use the terms of a message as a vehicle.”3 Rancière is ostensibly concerned with ­human po­liti­cal activity, yet we can attribute his concept to a broader swathe of existence. In stating that “po­liti­cal demonstration makes vis­i­ble that which had no reason to be seen; it places one world in another,” Rancière echoes the object-­oriented ontology (OOO) idea of an object-­filled world.4 The implications of placing one world in another speaks to a capacity of aesthetics to expand perspectives and by implication, its potential to extend po­liti­cal status to objects that formerly had no place in a singular (anthropocentric) worldview. Jane Bennet applies Rancière’s thinking to the case of the nonhuman: “When Rancière chooses to define what counts as po­liti­cal by what effect is generated: a po­liti­cal act not only disrupts, it disrupts in such a way as to change radically what ­people can ‘see’: it repartitions the sensible; it overthrows the regime of the perceptible. ­Here again the po­liti­cal gate is opened enough for nonhumans (dead rats, ­bottle caps, gadgets, fire, berries, metal) to slip through, for they have the power to startle and provoke a gestalt shift in perception.”5 Stacy Alaimo extends Rancière’s distribution of the sensible to deep-­sea organisms, revealed to us only in underwater photography: “The visual images of astonishing gelata and other newly discovered ocean creatures convey an impression of the interconnected networks of science, aesthetics, and politics; the momentous revelation of worlds within worlds; and a vibrant,

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urgent call to repartition global space in such a way that even the pelagic expanses become po­liti­cal zones of concern.”6 Certain qualities—­the distinctive darkness, eerie presence, and otherworldly scales of t­hese organisms as captured in deep-­sea photography—­bring to our perception organisms that exist in radically dif­fer­ent worlds. This essay proposes to explore qualities of scale and materiality in characterizing the feral. VASTNESS

The prob­lems posed for architecture by the Anthropocene are vast in scale and temporality, so vast that terms such as Marc Auge’s Supermodernity or Timothy Morton’s Hyperobject foreground the scalar issue in their very terminology. Supermodernity coined in anthropological terms the vast, anonymous, and transient “nonplaces”—­airports, ­hotels, and so on—­ created by the intersection of big data, logistics, and urban development. The term, in tracking the spatial byproducts of late capitalism, is h ­ uman focused, if not slightly optimistic that a new condition may emerge from the modern period. In distinction from supermodernity, the hyperobject, as a construct, by virtue of its scale, complexity, and heterogeneity, disrupts anthropocentric thought, incorporates myriad nonhumans. Hyperobjects such as climate change and nuclear radiation involve ­human technology, in some cases as their sources, yet grow to assimilate many more entities and ranges of effects, achieving a complexity and scale that not only eludes ­human comprehension, but also displaces the ­human as the central agent. Morton argues that “the vastness of the hyperobject’s scale makes smaller beings—­people, countries, even continents—­seem like an illusion, or a small colored patch on a large dark surface.”7 That the hyperobject registers as an aesthetic trace rather than a rational understanding is significant. It is its scale that defeats the mea­sure­ment or computation of its effects. The hyperobject of climate change, for example, is sensed in local manifestations yet its scope and scale remain shrouded. A well-­known aesthetic of vastness is the sublime, which returns t­ oday as a technological or ecological sublime in the works of artists and architects that include Edward Burtynsky, Tara Donovan, Olafur Eliassen, Andreas Gursky, Anish Kapoor, Susy MacMurray, and Liam Young, among ­others. Many of ­these works of art and architecture operate at massive scales and, in some cases, seem to rely on the spectacular structure of the sublime:


Ariane Lourie Harrison

an aesthetic that relies on the safe distance or interposed transparent medium between observer and phenomenon. We recall that Edmund Burke’s concept of the sublime emerged alongside landscape tableaus by Turner, Constable, and Wright of Derby depicting massive factory fires in Britain’s iron works and shipwrecked slave ships.8 In ­these paint­ers’ works, we sense the workings of hyperobjects: the extractive industries sending ­people deep underground into a brew of ore and sweat to supply a protoglobal trade in construction and arms, likewise the binding and fuel of sugar bringing together maritime impressment, decimated villages, and physical vio­lence across the globe. Burke’s sublime in this sense functioned as aesthetic apologia for the massive exploitation of the Industrial Revolution. Con­temporary formulations of the sublime reflect the massive scale of the hyperobjects they track. Morton describes the difficulty in bringing intimacy and superscale together: Hyperobjects force us into an intimacy with our own death (­because they are toxic), with ­others (­because every­one is affected by them), and with the ­future (­because they are massively distributed in time). Attuning ourselves to the intimacy that hyperobjects demand is not easy. Yet intimacy and the no-­self view come together in ecological awareness. The proximity of an alien presence that is also our innermost essence is very much its structure of feeling.9

Representing vast ecological awareness represented in structure that inspires feelings of intimacy—­invoking not the spectacular but the immediacy of lost “alien presence”—­distinguishes the feral, defining it in some sense in close proximity, yet in complete opposition to the ethos of the sublime. INTIMACY

Elaine Scarry offers a useful example for an aesthetic that can render immediate the massive scale of environmental loss. The remediative notion of beauty, featured in several of her works, does not make this point; rather it is in her work on law and rhe­toric that she proposes a valuable concept for Anthropocene architecture. Drawing on language from public health, Scarry distinguishes between modes of compassion. She defines “narrative compassion” as that felt by one h ­ uman identifying with the trauma of another, and “statistical compassion” as that capacity to identify with p­ eople

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that one never experiences as individuals and knows only through numeric data.10 She suggests that statistical compassion, or what can be considered the “numerically expansive” narrative, has a tendency to be viewed as a “nonstory” and therefore has conventionally failed to inspire compassion. Yet it is often only by means of im­mense numbers and vast sets of data that the enormity of issues—­such as the impact of nuclear warfare—­can become tangible. Her work on nuclear disarmament argues for the necessity of compassionately embracing the numerically expansive narrative in order to comprehend the enormous scale of such issues.11 Yet compassion, as an emotive response, operates at a far more intimate scale. Her work sets forth a productive challenge to find means outside of the anthropocentric position of  “narrative compassion” to articulate a compassionate embrace of the numerically expansive narrative of colossal ecological loss. Intimacy invokes notions of duration and finitude, as well as an uncertain futurality. Morton points to the manner in which hyperobjects challenge the timescales that typically bracket h ­ uman ethics: “No self-­interest theory of ethical action whatsoever, no m ­ atter how extended or modified, is g­ oing to work when it comes to an object that lasts for a hundred thousand years.”12 Bryant argues that it is precisely an Anthropocene expansion of our notion of self-­interest that requires us to adopt significantly larger timescales.13 Statistical compassion and what we might call a futural consciousness invoke scales that transcend the ­human narrative; ­these offer a framework for extending compassion and ethical status to nonhumans. In the second meaning of  “feral,” the funerary, the belonging to the dead, we find an opening for intimacy. Victorian funerary rites establish intimacy with the dead in the wearing of a bracelet or necklace woven of a lost one’s hair, the crafting objects from the remains, or the positioning of a corpse in commemorative photo­g raphs. This h ­ andling of the dead makes mourning a relational pro­cess that can be seen as establishing a communication with a state that is other, a pro­cess not focused on “moving on” as much as seeking to move with the memory. An aesthetic object—­a bracelet or wreath—­transforms loss from “alien presence” into companionable other. Presence is literally braided into the materiality of the object: its surfaces are conceptually (and literally from a DNA perspective) inhabited by the presence of o ­ thers. The feral offers this kind of mourning jewelry as architecture.


Ariane Lourie Harrison INHABITED SURFACES

If feral architecture proposes a visual manifestation of  “other” in the form of nonhuman presences, its effect is not only symbolic, but also programmatic, inviting nonhumans as inhabitants to demonstrate their continued, if enfeebled, existences among us. It is somewhat ironic that historical commemorative architecture for ­humans—­ chapels and mausolea—­offers a nonhuman foothold for creatures we consider feral in the wild sense: the craggy surfaces and deep niches of neogothic memorials, for example, are replete with birds and insects. In contrast to the glazed surfaces of modernity’s skyscrapers, or the cladding systems featured in Zaera-­Polo’s research on the building envelope, the textured surface of ­these historic structures provides a literal living space for nonhumans.14 In the urban imaginary, from Piranesi’s ruins of Italian cities—­ruins that shelter animals and beggars—to the graphic novel city of Gotham, with its bat-­winged guardian perched high above, t­ here is a feral ecosystem: the surfaces of the city teem with nonhumans. The patterning, the texture of the wall, the rooftop, or win­dow ledge is where the feral aesthetic historically lies; the selfsame intricate working housing the animals in the building surface, in its facade, is where the intentional critical act of architecture is read. A number of emerging architecture firms engage the nonhuman animal, but their emphasis tends to be programmatic in the ser­vice of a futuristic, human-­centered world. For example, one such proj­ect is Terreform One’s Cricket Shelter: Modular Edible Insect Farm, which addresses a near-­ future of global hunger: a gleaming white shelter for crickets is envisioned along the lines of a factory farm, prompting the contained replication and maturation of crickets as a low-­energy, low-­water source of ­human food. While the ingenuity of this system, along with its alignment with UN guidelines for insect-­sourced protein as one means to address global hunger, is undeniable, both its sanitary aesthetic and its anthropocentric program make of it an architectural machine at the ser­vice of ­humans. Another such architectural machine—­but one perhaps more in line with the proposed feral approach, suffused with ironic critique about the relationship between h ­ umans and nonhumans—­would be R&Sie’s pavilion Hybrid Muscle, which offers an off-­the-­grid way station in Chang-­Mai

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that relies on a ­water bison’s ­labor to power the pistons that create the pavilion’s electricity and ventilation. In the R&Sie proj­ect, we revel in an in-­your-­face logic; the ­water bison among us cannot be ignored, yet the implicit grafting into the electrical grid of a beast of burden makes the point: animals do not fit; they are curios, an inconsistency within a human-­ transformed world. We view the R&Sie with a tremor of disturbance, the source of which is difficult to pinpoint; we attribute the discomfort the work ­causes to humor, to the odd combination of ancient animal and postcapital energy source. Yet what it does is force an unnamed confrontation with the effect of ­human actions, and how truly banal the inevitable use of nonhumans by h ­ umans is: use ­until nonhumans are no longer useful. Then they are discarded, become an aesthetic object, living relics, mourning jewelry in and of themselves. In the Terreform One case, we are not disturbed; in fact, we may be delighted. We are past the consideration of ­humans’ destructive impact on nonhumans and the ecosystem; the ecosystem is dismantled, reused as a kit of parts for a human-­engineered ecol­ogy, and our own experiences in a world that has become self-­similar to the world implied by this work are but reaffirmed. ­Here, the conceit is ac­cep­tance without memory of the Anthropocene as a fact that not only cannot be changed, but that perhaps may be the best outcome, when we consider ­human optimization. Other designers offer purely programmatic works proposing cohabitation for h ­ umans and nonhumans, but lacking a critique of the anthropocentric. In Ants of the Prairie’s Habitat Walls, for example, h ­ umans trod a footpath situated above hanging layers of wooden sheaths and bird boxes. The material language of sal­vaged wood and the construction vocabulary of layered planks is entirely consistent with that of most human-­built structures for housing bats and birds. In this sense, the work is clearly functional, virtuous in its attempt to render cohabitation among ­humans and nonhumans, but ­silent as to context. The work does not self-­situate within the history of ­human–­animal exploitation. In contrast, the feral would include Harrison Atelier’s (HAT) “The Birds and the Bees” pavilions series (see figure 15.1), which addresses species cohabitation but seeks an aesthetic that embeds the prob­lem for the viewer to unpack; it does so using the aesthetic device so often employed by the sublime: the uncanny. In HAT’s pavilions, hand-­cast cement panels feature protuberances, swellings, and holes, which make vis­i­ble the potential


Ariane Lourie Harrison

Figure 15.1 Elevation, Species Wall Pavilion, Harrison Atelier, 2016, digital image. Courtesy of Harrison Atelier.

pockets of space on its surfaces inhabitable by nonhumans. Holes figure prominently in works from MR James’s nineteenth-­century Gothic novels to recent episodes of American Horror Story ­because of their multivalent ambiguity—­a hole may harbor a monster within, or may be empty but equally unsettling as the onetime container of a life past. ­These are spaces once pregnant with possibilities that now are contain but a stirring, a tremor, a primitive feeling—­not the shock of  “­there is something in ­there” but the eerie question, “what if ­there is a presence?” The empty spaces suggestive of habitation, or that may have once harbored life, surround the pavilion’s ­human visitors with the possibility of presence and its constant companion, in grief and in any ­actual or imminent departure, the realization of loss. HAT’s Thorns Pavilions function similarly, within the familiar vocabulary of “bee h ­ otels.” At several sites in Linlithgo, New York, pavilions are being designed that pres­ent facades to solitary bees as surfaces for

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inhabitation. The facade panels are not simply beehives; they are messaging systems to h ­ umans. Each panel is studded with a “thorn” that is actually a bee-­scaled rain canopy. (Solitary bees’ nests stand a better chance of survival if they are not damp, attracting fungi.) The move to conflate a protuberance that creates immediate anticipatory retraction and pain with a protective program for nonhumans seeks to provoke ­human attention to the dwindling of ­these still-­necessary nonhumans for pollination, a function for which we have not yet created a substitute machine; yet the painful fact remains: we are eradicating ­these creatures. Darkness In Ecol­ogy without Nature, Morton is explicit about the dark aesthetic appropriate to the Anthropocene: “The ecological thought, the thinking of interconnectedness … has a dark side embodied not in the hippie aesthetic of life over death … but in a ‘goth’ assertion of the contingent and necessarily queer idea that we want to stay with a d­ ying world: dark ecol­ogy.”15 A shorthand for the unknown, the dreamt, and the dead, darkness in architecture unleashes a legion of narratives that ­counter modernism’s dream of hygienic transparency. From the brooding presence of David Adjay’s Dirty House in London to the charred interiors of Zumthor’s Bruder Claus Chapel, the dark concrete masses seem to bear witness to violent pasts. I would argue that this aesthetic of shadow in its current architectural usage seeks to make the losses incurred in the Anthropocene tangible rather than mask it ­under the greenwash of technological positivism. Darkness also evokes the presence of nonhumans in ­human construction. Stacy Alaimo’s discussion of the radiant blackness that frames photo­ graphs of deep-­sea creatures reiterates the otherness of nonhuman existence, the “aqueous uncanny,” as she puts it, but also the contingency of our access to them as an understanding dependent upon technology. “The unnervingly violet-­black seas entice us to envision posthumanist perspectives that renounce mastery, transcendence, and stable, terrestrial frames of reference that center the h ­ uman subject within vis­ib­ le horizons.”16 Alaimo proposes that “the aesthetic capture of t­ hese creatures … implicitly promotes a consensus in which we unite in an appreciation of gelatinous beauty.”17 Yet we can argue that we do not unite with them,


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rather we become aware of dif­fer­ent worlds through the extension of our technologies into their realms. T ­ hese are entities that emit their own sources of light, and thus are freed from the heliocentric ­orders of the aboveground; ­these are organisms that encompass their abyssal, hadal, and bathyl environments into the fabric of their jellied bodies. Even the terms we use to identify their depths—­hadal, abyssal—­speak to the conceptual remoteness of their worlds. The dark rendering, deepening the mystery rather clarifying it, both celebrates the technology that pres­ents such obscure nonhuman existences for h ­ umans’ wonderment, plea­sure, and advancement, and serves to undermine it. Our awareness is qualified, if not enhanced, by a technology such as undersea photography that magnifies the gaps between objects, and makes ­these nonhuman ­others vis­i­ble across a dark abyss, an irreducible difference. This field of distances or gaps is impor­tant in disrupting the anthropocentric perspective. As Bryant suggests, “Object-­oriented philosophy therefore de­moc­ra­tizes being, asserting not one primary gap between subjects and objects, ­humans and world, mind and real­ity, but rather an infinity of gaps or vacuums between objects regardless of ­whether ­humans are involved.”18 The language of darkness—­Morton’s “goth’ assertion”—is appropriate for an architectural esthetic intended to serve as a constant reminder of the somewhat inevitable ecological destruction wreaked by the Anthropocene, and so thwarts the hygienic posture and sunny “green” aesthetic that characterizes much of ecological architecture (Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, Bjorke Ingels Group, Norman Foster, among o ­ thers). The green is technologically positivistic, unrealistic, and possibly even cynical in glossing ­humans’ damage to the environment, whereas a dark ecol­ogy fully acknowledges the unimpeded exploitation of h ­ umans. The feral accepts the sixth mass extinction as being already underway, and that h ­ umans are its cause. Feral architecture is not green b­ ecause it cannot be: the feral might propose programmatic solutions to enable ­humans and nonhumans to cohabitate, but it refuses to accept the optimistic green rhe­toric that such enlightened but single-­point solutions can make any difference. The feral represents nonhumans by attempting to bring them into ethical regard according to the a­ ctual terms by which we have altered, if not truncated, their existences. We should deploy our technologies, and our architectural programs and devices, to depict what is actually occurring and what might soon come to pass, rather than linger on an idealized past,

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or to portray the h ­ uman–­nonhuman relationship in idealized terms. To the extent that buildings are an emblem of how h ­ umans have altered the environment for the enhancement of their survival, feral architecture serves as a reminder, both a mnemonic for ­future ­human actions and a memento mori of the negative consequences. NOTES

1. ​OED. feral, adj. Pronunciation: /ˈfɪərəl/. Frequency (in current use): Etymology: Latin fērālis of or pertaining to funeral rites or to the dead. 1. a. Of a deadly nature; deadly, fatal. b. Astrol. The astrologers identified this with feral adj. 2. Of or pertaining to the dead; funereal, gloomy. Feral, adj. Frequency (in current use): Etymology: Latin fera wild beast + -al suffix. 1. Of an animal: Wild, untamed. Of a plant, also (rarely), of ground: Uncultivated. Now often applied to animals or plants that have lapsed into a wild from a domesticated condition. 2. ​Theorists of OOO and speculative realism, Graham Harman, Timothy Morton, Ian Bogost, and Levi Bryant, among o ­ thers, propose models of a world comprised of objects—­many nested within one other—­removing the dichotomies of “inside/outside,” “society/nature,” and even the concept of an exterior “environment.” In a series of elegant arguments, Harman and Bryant describe the manner in which objects are fundamentally withdrawn, both from each other and from themselves. Graham Harman, Immaterialism: Objects and Social Theory (Cambridge: Polity, 2016); Levi Bryant, The Democracy of Objects (London: Open Humanities, 2011). Harman describes the role of aesthetics in both bridging and preserving the paradoxical distance among and between objects: “The separation of a ­thing from its quality is no longer a local phenomenon of ­human experience, but instead is the root of all relations between real objects, including causal relations. In other words, allure belongs to ontology as a ­whole, not to the special metaphysics of animal perception. Relations between all real objects, including mindless chunks of dirt, occur only by means of some form of allusion. But insofar as we have identified allure with an aesthetic effect, this means that aesthetics becomes first philosophy.” Graham Harman, “On Vicarious Causation,” in Collapse II (Falmouth, MA: Urbanomic, 2007), 187–221. Morton too suggests that, given the distance between objects, aesthetics becomes a primary mode of relation among objects: “OOO believes that real­ity is mysterious and magical, ­because beings withdraw and ­because beings influence each other aesthetically, which is to say, at a distance.” Timothy Morton, Dark Ecol­ogy: For a Logic of ­Future Coexistence (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016), 17. That effects among objects are registered in the aesthetic dimension is among OOO’s fundamental claims. Morton describes an “interobjective space,” which is aesthetic: “The interobjective space is the aesthetic dimension in which the appearances of objects interact in what we call causality.” Timothy Morton, Realist Magic:


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Objects, Ontology, Causality (London: Open Humanities, 2013), 177. And likewise Harman uses the term “allure” in describing the distanced effects that objects have on each other. Graham Harman, Guerilla Metaphysics: Phenomenology and the Carpentry of ­Things (Chicago: Open Court, 2005). 3. ​Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics (London: Bloomsbury, 2004), 59. 4. ​Jacques Rancière, Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics (London: Continuum, 2010), 38. 5. ​Jane Bennet, Vibrant ­Matter: A Po­liti­cal Ecol­ogy of ­Things (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), 106–107. 6. ​Stacy Alaimo, “Jellyfish Science, Jellyfish Aesthetics: Posthuman Reconfigurations of the Sensible,” in Thinking with ­Water (Montreal: McGill-­Queen’s University Press, 2013), 157. 7. ​Timothy Morton, Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecol­ogy ­after the End of the World (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013), 32. 8. ​Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, ed. A. Phillips (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), 36–37. 9. ​Morton, Hyperobjects, 139. 10. ​Elaine Scarry, “Speech Acts in Criminal Cases,” in Law’s Stories: Narrative and Rhe­toric in the Law, ed. Peter Brooks and Paul Gewirtz (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998), 166. 11. ​Elaine Scarry, Thermonuclear Monarchy: Choosing between Democracy and Doom (New York: Norton, 2014). 12. ​Morton, Hyperobjects, 135. 13. ​Levi Bryant, “Flat Ontology/Flat Ethics,” Larval Subjects, accessed June 1, 2012, https://­­ontologyflat-­ethics/. 14. ​Alejandro Zaera Polo, “The Politics of the Envelope,” Volume 17 (November 2008): 76–105. 15. ​Timothy Morton, Ecol­ogy without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), 184. 16. ​Stacy Alaimo, “Violet Black,” in Prismatic Ecol­ogy: Ecotheory beyond Green, ed. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013), 233–251. 17. ​Alaimo, “Jellyfish Aesthetics,” 152. 18. ​Bryant, Democracy of Objects, 280.

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Alaimo, Stacy. “Jellyfish Science, Jellyfish Aesthetics: Posthuman Reconfigurations of the Sensible.” In Thinking with ­Water. Montreal: McGill-­Queen’s University Press, 2013. Alaimo, Stacy. “Violet Black.” In Prismatic Ecol­ogy: Ecotheory beyond Green, edited by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, 233–251. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013. Bennet, Jane. Vibrant ­Matter: A Po­liti­cal Ecol­ogy of ­Things. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010. Bryant, Levi. “Flat Ontology/Flat Ethics.” Larval Subjects. Accessed June 1, 2012. https://­­ontologyflat-­ethics/. Bryant, Levi. The Democracy of Objects. London: Open Humanities, 2011. Burke, Edmund. A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, edited by A. Phillips, 36–37. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990. Harman, Graham. Guerilla Metaphysics: Phenomenology and the Carpentry of ­Things. Chicago: Open Court, 2005. Harman, Graham. Immaterialism: Objects and Social Theory. Cambridge: Polity, 2016. Harman, Graham. “On Vicarious Causation.” In Collapse II, 187–221. Falmouth, MA: Urbanomic, 2007. Morton, Timothy. Dark Ecol­ogy: For a Logic of ­Future Coexistence. New York: Columbia University Press, 2016. Morton, Timothy. Ecol­ogy without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007. Morton, Timothy. Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecol­ogy ­after the End of the World. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013. Rancière, Jacques. Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics. London: Continuum, 2010. Rancière, Jacques. The Politics of Aesthetics. London: Bloomsbury, 2004. Scarry, Elaine. “Speech Acts in Criminal Cases.” In Law’s Stories: Narrative and Rhe­toric in the Law, edited by Peter Brooks and Paul Gewirtz, 166. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998. Scarry, Elaine. Thermonuclear Monarchy: Choosing between Democracy and Doom. New York: Norton, 2014. Zaera-­Polo, Alejandro. “The Politics of the Envelope.” Volume 17 (November 2008): 76–105.


Abstraction is a given. It is not imposed on a discipline from outside by something or someone. Abstraction is native to all objects. In architecture, meaningful work is attributed to ­those architects who have, through a par­ tic­u­lar kind of l­abor, and a cryptic dialogue with form, managed to turn ordinary ­things, door, ceiling, win­dow, wall, column, mortar, white, space, hole, into something that is both alien and extraordinary. Beyond access, and in solitude, each ­thing has the chance to plenish another ­thing. This ordinary and adhesive set of ­things coexist, and they prehend one another in­de­pen­dently from us—­whether we like it or not, this medley of subjects are their own beings. Above and beyond function or utility is architecture’s scarce gift: the possibility to peer into the surplus of ­things, and usher meaning into the world through forms and objects. To achieve this and to move beyond the classical duality of part and w ­ holes w ­ ill require theorizing new forms of aesthetic ­labor, a deeper understanding of the ways ­things communicate, and an expanded notion of how ­these forms of ­labor make architecture durable to our senses. ­There is a well-­known anecdote between a church warden and his architect regarding the rationale b­ ehind the unorthodox form of the church ceiling and its unusually shallow brick vaults.1 At one end of the room, topping off the wall where it meets the ceiling, is the profile of what appear to be three symmetrical convex arcs, and at the opposite end of the room, the same arcs terminate in a straight line. The edges of each arc are sharpened by the exposed flange of the I-­beams that support them. The story goes like this, Mr. Brandt, (the warden) once asked the architect, “Why are the ceilings formed this way? Is it for the acoustics?” The architect replied with a smile.


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“Well yes it’s pos­si­ble that it is good for the acoustics also, but I’ll tell you what it is, Mr. Brandt; it’s purely aesthetics. And I’ll tell you where I got the idea from, too. When I was young I had a racing boat. Racing boats back then ­were built in such a way that the hull did not continue to the keel in an even curve. Instead, ­there was a sharp line where the bottom and the side met, and the bottom was composed of two concave surfaces. Once I had the boat in the boatyard and I crept under­neath. I saw how elegant it was. The curved surfaces and the edges of the sides w ­ ere not parallel with the keel, and I thought to myself, ‘one day I am ­going to use this in a building.’ ”2

­ here are at least two speedboats, the one in the ceiling and the real T speedboat, and perhaps without this candid explanation they would have remained sensible only to the building. Nonetheless, the ceiling of the sanctuary has speedboat-­like qualities, and it remains theoretically vague, or cryptic, how they got ­there even when they are explained to us. According to the information theorist Charles Bennett, ­things that are cryptic employ a ­simple (shallow) code that allows the receiver to decipher the message. In cryptography, the degree of complexity is related to the time (or work) that it takes a universal computer to unpack the message, and this is what makes deciphering the message unfeasible.3 The impor­tant point ­here is that crypticity is a fundamental part of devising a compact theory for what we observe, and its construction demands that the code account for all the irregularities in the message. For Bennett, crypticity is an attempt to mathematically assess complexity rather than intuit it. In a physical sense, architecture is an elastic lump of forces leaning upon each other. In a spatial proximal sense, objects can be close together, fused together, or far apart, but as a composition of t­ hings, we say they maintain an aesthetic relationship. As Graham Harman puts it, it’s not that objects perceive each other the way we do, it is the fact that interaction is not something granted to h ­ umans alone, but rather something that all t­hings have in common.4 How is it that architectural objects comprehend other objects? As a spatial practice, architecture absorbs other objects and their qualities, allowing them to interbreed. Harman observes that “qualities need not marry objects of their own kind.”5 Like a g­ iant conglomerate rock, or the remnants of a tsunami, architecture can incorporate other objects in ­whole or in part. Similarly, the novelist, and speculative realist, Tristan Garcia proposes that ­things have two senses, “that which is in the ­thing and that which the t­ hing is,” adding that this double life of solitude comes

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with a “chance” to make a difference and a “price to pay”—­the impossibility for a ­thing to comprehend itself.6 For Garcia, it is the fate of ­things that they can only be comprehended by other ­things w ­ hether they are ­human or nonhuman. Harman’s aesthetics also provide us with two realms, governed by the real object, for which we need theory, and its sensual counterpart, which requires observation. The acknowl­edgment that subjectivity belongs to all objects equally is no longer unfamiliar territory. We are in the midst of an increasingly technical world in which architectural objects, the places we go, the games we play, and the vehicles that we drive, are able to sense, monitor, and make contact with one another without us. In many ways, the alienation and strange interactions we have with the world are through objects that occupy the foreground of everyday life, both by accident and by design. In the rush to communicate, it has also become necessary for us to defend the solitude of t­hings along with ourselves. Yet, technical objects have no special status when compared to their nontechnical counter­parts. Like the aesthetic encounters between bricks, speedboats, and sanctuaries, gravity is the opportunity for architecture to foster interactions without a cause, that are logically deep and theoretically cryptic. Object-­oriented ontology and speculative realism provide architecture with a much-­needed constitution in the special case of an aesthetic encounter between such objects. FISSURES AND FUSIONS IN THE QUA­DRU­PLE OBJECT

­ here are two objects, the real one that is inaccessible and the sensual one T that resides in the imagination. In addition to this are real qualities and sensual qualities and together they occupy the four poles of The Qua­dru­ple Object.7 In aesthetic terms, the architectural encounter between the real object that is the speedboat, and the sensual speedboat qualities, requires a par­tic­u­lar kind of ­labor to pry them apart. This confrontation is marked by a split, or to use Harman’s term, a fissure, between the sensual object and its liberation into something that can be contemplated in­de­pen­dently from the object’s real qualities. In order for us to imagine a speedboat in our mind, we have to strip away all of its unnecessary entourage: bumpers, barnacles, bruises and the like. This tension cannot be attributed to sense alone, since it requires a theory to explain the t­ hing that is invisible to us. According to Harman, it is Husserl who identifies this tension as the eidos,


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or the features that make a ­thing what it is.8 In relation to our story, we can say that the architect identifies two kinds of qualities in the speedboat, ­those that are inside it, which are unlocked through its repre­sen­ta­tion, and ­those at its surface, which are redistributed through intermediaries. Both are equals when theorizing the ceiling. A similar tension encapsulates the real object and its real qualities, which is associated with essence. According to Harman, ­there are no essential features to the real object. Essence is nothing more than real speedboat qualities that are attached to the real speedboat object through another form of ­labor called fusion.9 It is impor­tant to reiterate the distinction Harman makes between sense and the intellect. Within his four tensions, space and time belong to the senses, while the eidos and essence belong to the intellect. Harman establishes ­these four poles to theorize the real object that lies beyond access.10 There are also interactions between sensual objects that produce real objects. Within the sensual speedboat qualities, we also find real vault qualities popping up. What we can sense in this scenario is a bustling of subqualities that shut­tle like ghosts, between the ceiling, the vault, and the speedboat. Harman’s rationale for “aesthetics” is more than a call for beauty, it is an opportunity for ­things to exchange their durability and intermingle between the four poles. This exchange, or acknowledgement, is related to what art critic Michael Fried advocates for in modernist painting. Each work belongs to a set that is the history of painting.11 If we accept Garcia’s thingly channel of being and its two senses (that in which the ­thing is and that which is in the ­thing), then meaning is defined through interactions between ­things. Being meaningful requires a coupling and a difference between ­things, which cannot be sustained through the literalness of ­things in solitude.12 Not only do speedboats, Helsingborg bricks, and vaults interact with each other, they also interact with the history of architecture. For Garcia, ­there is no meaning in a ­thing. The meaning alluded to ­here is the meaning that objects find in the environment. This is the chance that ­things find in other ­things through their interactions.13 Architecture is the effervescence of this interaction, and without the chance of ­things, architectural objects cannot enter the world. In considering the speedboat, it is impor­tant to acknowledge the role of the essential vault. The real object enables what Harman calls a confrontation in the imagination in order to theorize the speedboat qualities. On a formal level, the essential vault underscores Lewerentz’s ability to encrypt the qualities of the

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vault and the speedboat by coupling together their concave and convex qualities. However, the coupling that makes this pos­si­ble remains carefully hidden from view giving way to an entirely new form of ceiling and speedboat-­like masonry construction. CONNOTATIVE OBJECTS

I want to return to the fact that real objects, like architecture, can absorb other real objects. A similar approach can be found in the writings of Roland Barthes and Ernest Hemingway. ­These authors are able to communicate identity through the interplay of objects. Hemingway mastered the use of connotative objects to infer second-­level meanings between two real objects. In an interview on fiction, Hemingway explains his search for “the unnoticed t­hings that made emotions such as the way an outfielder tossed his glove without looking back to where it fell.”14 He was interested in the ways ­things could move the reader before they knew the story. In this sense, the fielder’s glove is a connotative object. Consider the way that Willie Mays is made durable to us through the strange reversal of his glove over his left shoulder during “the catch.”15 The glove is no less a t­ hing than the player. Oddly, May’s catch was so unbelievable that commentator Jack Brick­house referred to the catch as an optical illusion. Realism has the unique ability to convey meaning without describing emotions. ­There is an immediacy and timelessness associated with journalistic writing that intrigued Hemingway. What he frames through his fictional confrontation with verisimilitude is the ability to transfer meaning to t­ hings through aesthetic encounters.16 A remarkably similar approach t­ oward materiality can be found in the informality of the detailing in Lewerentz’s work. Beneath the surface ­there is a willingness to excite and de-­determine ­things. Alternatively, in a slightly more sinister way, connotative objects can also be employed to convey the sensual qualities of objects. In his collection of essays Mythologies, Roland Barthes describes how signification is attributed to a host of modern objects through the myth of advertising. Based upon the qualities of ­these objects, a fictional real­ity is constructed. Regarding the power of soap powders and detergents, he writes, “Powders … are separating agents: their ideal role is to liberate the object from its circumstantial imperfection: dirt is ‘forced out.’ ”17 He continues with his comparison of powders and detergents: “Omo uses two of t­ hese, which are


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rather novel in the category of detergents: the deep and the foamy … to say that Omo cleans in depth … is to assume that linen is deep, which no one had previously thought … as for foam, it is well known that it signifies luxury.18 Despite the signification that is native to advertising, Barthes describes objects based upon the way they interact with other objects and the difference they make in the world. Posited from this perspective, the image of Lewerentz’s speedboat is something that grants equal status to it as a form and an object. ­There is a recognition that the speedboat’s symbolic significance and structural stability are equal forces, and are therefore capable of being entangled in the ­future to produce an entirely undetermined set of architectural connotations. While the styles differ, the ­thing that distinguishes realism from structuralism is the absence of a designated signifier and the opportunity for objects to obtain their meaning through aesthetic engagement. It is a way of seeing and representing the world that prioritizes aesthetics. This distinction, that meaning is not pressed upon ­things, but is instead something that surfaces through the interaction, underlines the importance object-­ oriented ontology. The under­lying limitations, and idealism imposed by materialist thought, are lifted if we accept that objects exist in solitude, unburdened by causal explanations. In Garcia’s “thingly channel of being,” meaning, value, or depth cannot be ascribed to t­ hings or be determined from the outside by logic. “A t­ hing is nothing other than the difference between that which is in the ­thing and that in which the ­thing is.”19 DEPTH AND CRYPTICITY

While Harman’s development of fusions and fissures is useful, it raises the question about how one discerns their elegance in a work of architecture. Bennett was faced with a similar prob­lem in his evaluation of algorithmic content, and in part this is what led him to develop his ideas for logical depth and crypticity.20 Bennett’s assignment of value is universal, and it is based upon the amount of time it takes a universal computer to satisfy a schema. What is in­ter­est­ing about logical depth is that it is a nonhuman form of ­labor. The mea­sure­ment of this ­labor is comprised of two parts—­ regularities that can be compressed and irregularities or random bits of information that are uncompressible. If it takes the computer a longer amount of time to satisfy the schema or to halt the computation, it is said

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to have ­great depth.21 An example of logical depth might be the discovery of the large prime number where the schema is s­ imple but the search time is long. By analogy this notion of complexity can be applied to any system. The search is to find the most compact description that satisfies the query in the shortest time. The difficulty with this model is that the computer can only satisfy the schema in equilibrium. Logical depth is unable to assess the ingenuity that is triggered when something in the system breaks or becomes interrupted. This type of situation is inherent to design pro­cesses, like architecture, where a single schema is insufficient. Logical depth is a constituent part of aesthetics. An example of logical depth appears in Lewerentz’s masonry work. When choosing to build with nonstandard clinker brinks, he established at least two unusual rules for the masons: first, that no bricks may be cut, and second, that the vertical mortar joints, contrary to common practice, may vary in width.22 When observed at a distance, the appearance and tolerances between the bricks change, causing the wall to appear to vibrate optically along its length. As one critic has remarked, sometimes the wall resembles a brick wall held together with mortar, while at other times the wall resembles a concrete wall with the bricks acting like aggregate. With such liberal tolerances between the bricks, the integrity of the wall was compromised to the point that a stronger mortar had to be developed. What is impor­tant to note is that the bridge that develops between logical depth and aesthetic experience evolves through a compact schema. This pertains to the speedboat as much it does to the laying of the brick; both sets of relations are encrypted within the building. The logical depth of the wall is queried using two shallow and encrypted rules that are executed largely in secrecy, and by meeting ­these conditions, a surplus of aesthetic qualities begins to appear. While logical depth is one kind of complexity, crypticity can be thought of as its reciprocal.23 Shallowness is a key aspect of reducing t­hings and compressing them into compact theories. A more general approach to this prob­lem is central to determining what makes one theory more elegant than another. In his description of cryptography, Bennett offers a precise explanation: Another kind of complexity associated with an object would be the difficulty, given the object, of finding a plausible hypothesis to explain it. Objects having this kind of complexity might be called “cryptic”: to find a plausible origin for


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the object is like solving a cryptogram. A desirable (but mathematically unproven) property for small-­key cryptosystems is that encryption should be easy, but breaking the system (e.g., inferring the key from a sufficient quantity of intercepted ciphertext) should be hard. If satisfactory small-­key cryptosystems indeed exist, then typical cryptograms generated from shallow plaintexts are shallow (­because they can be generated quickly from shallow input information) but cryptic (­because even when the cryptogram contains sufficient information to uniquely determine the plaintext and key, the job of ­doing so is computationally infeasible).24

The fascinating aspect of architecture is that ­there is no single key and it requires an unreasonable amount of ­labor to arrive at a theory that can encompass all of its irregularities. This comes with a sense of knowing that much of what we intuit in a building is encrypted and unrecoverable, perhaps intentionally so. It is this unique aspect of the intellect that makes crypticity sensible to us through observation. Similarly, Edward Snowden has suggested that the stars could provide an endless form of encryption: “The signals that we receive constitute an ever-­changing key forged from the sky itself. Such a key could only be imitated by an agent listening from that same place, in that same direction, at that same time, to ­those exact same stars.”25 Simply put, crypticity is the art of constructing codes (fictional and empirical) between t­hings. In the first sense, this encounter is aesthetic, and in the second sense, it drives intellectual ­labor. While Bennett’s theories provide an alternative framework for assessing complexity, it can be argued that they maintain a correlationist perspective that relies on the reducibility of t­ hings. W ­ hether by h ­ uman judgment or computation, correlationism does not acknowledge the subjectivity of inanimate objects to exist without a cause. Garcia’s metaphysics take a clear stand against reductionism. He warns against the ghost of compactness or the tendency to determine t­hings, “as if one could then consider m ­ atter, nature, or society as ­things outside appearances, absolute, remaining in themselves.”26 This desire to determine ­things is what robs them of their beauty. Rather than reject depth and crypticity entirely, we need to develop a better understanding of where the magic resides in the aesthetic encounter between ­things. Harman and Garcia both draw clear separations between depth and ­things. Garcia’s ontology locates all ­things in solitude, equally flat and without depth. In order for ­there to be depth, ­things must form a ­couple in order to become an object in the world.27 It is this

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under­lying set that provides Garcia’s ontology with a manifold-­like quality in which ­things have two senses.28 Instead of a metaphysics of parts and ­wholes, t­hings are guaranteed a quantum-­like existence—­“if each ­thing is in the world, then no ­thing is in itself.”29 For Harman, while objects are endlessly deep, we have no access to them. Occasionally, t­ hings surprise us by piercing forward as subjects but this is a special case afforded to all real ­things that no object or ­human can access. ­There is a striking similarity between Bennett’s definition of crypticity, and the bond Harman identifies between a real object and its qualities. As Harman writes, “Only theoretical l­abor can disassemble or reverse engineer the bond between them.”30 It is debatable if a cryptic intellect can exist for inanimate beings, but Harman and Garcia thankfully leave the door open to this possibility. This is the flat aesthetics we need to place our ­future in, where all the architectural t­ hings that our discipline has placed in solitude may discover a plea­sure in their surplus of senses, and recast the world as we know it. The time of Alberti has passed, and it no longer makes sense to identify with an architecture that can be simply reduced to part-to-­wholerelationships. However, when we approach this question on aesthetic grounds, the distinctions between sense and intellect become fuzzy. Depth and crypticity are no less valid when applied to architecture or the sciences, and it would be a misfortune for architects to confine t­ hese to the ­human intellect alone. We should play them out in the sensual realm. What is it about the quality of the time and l­abor associated with the aesthetic experience of the sensual object and its real qualities that make architecture a durable ­thing? Depth is both a fiction of objects and a form of ­labor. What we should be concerned with is not how we mea­sure it, but instead how it is made durable through the qualities of architectural objects and the aesthetic ­labor of our time. NOTES

1. ​Jane Ahlin, Sigurd Lewerentz, Architect (Zu­r ich: Park Books, 2014), 156–157. 2. ​Ahlin, Sigurd Lewerentz, 156–157. 3. ​Charles Bennett, “Logical Depth and Physical Complexity,” IBM, accessed January 15, 2018, https://­ 6. 4. ​Graham Harman, The Qua­dru­ple Object (Winchester, UK: Zero Books, 2011), 103.


Rhett Russo

5. ​Harman, Qua­dru­ple Object, 105. 6. ​Tristan Garcia, Form and Object: A Treatise on ­Things (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2014), 11–13. 7. ​Garcia, Form and Object, 50. 8. ​Garcia, 101. 9. ​Garcia, 103. 10. ​Garcia, 96. 11. ​Michael Fried, “Shape as Form: Frank Stella’s Irregular Polygons,” in Art and Objecthood, ed. Michael Fried (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1998), 88. 12. ​Garcia, Form and Object, 57. 13. ​Garcia, 13. 14. ​Ernest Hemingway, “The Art of Fiction XXI,” Paris Review 18 (Spring 1958): 85. 15. ​Jack Brick­house, “Willie Mays the Catch,” YouTube, accessed January 2018, https://­ 16. ​Hemingway, “Art of Fiction XXI,” 85. 17. ​Roland Barthes, Mythologies (New York: Hill and Wang, 1995), 36. 18. ​Barthes, Mythologies, 37. 19. ​Garcia, Form and Object, 13. 20. ​Bennett, “Logical Depth and Physical Complexity,” 2. 21. ​Bennett, 3. 22. ​Peter Jones, “Revealing Details Lewerentz at Klippan,” in Sigurd Lewerentz, eds. Nicola Flora, Paolo Giardiello, and Gennaro Postiglione (London: Phaidon, 2013), 384. 23. ​Murray Gell-­Mann, The Quark and the Jaguar Adventures in the S ­ imple and Complex (New York: W. H. Freeman, 1994), 101. 24. ​Bennett, “Logical Depth and Physical Complexity,” 5. 25. ​Edward Snowden, “Astro Noise,” in Astro Noise: A Survival Guide for Living ­under Total Surveillance, ed. Laura Poitras (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016), 121. 26. ​Garcia, Form and Object, 14. 27. ​Garcia, 57. 28. ​Garcia, 59.

Architecture, Deep and Cryptic 279 29. ​Garcia, 59. 30. ​Harman, Qua­dru­ple Object, 104. BIBLIOGRAPHY

Ahlin, Jane. Sigurd Lewerentz, Architect. Zu­r ich: Park Books, 2014. Barthes, Roland. Mythologies. New York: Hill and Wang, 1995. Bennett, Charles, H. “Logical Depth and Physical Complexity.” IBM. Accessed January  15, 2018. https://­​ .pdf. Brick­house, Jack. “Willie Mays the Catch.” YouTube. Accessed January 2018. https://­ Fried, Michael. “Shape as Form: Frank Stella’s Irregular Polygons.” In Art and Objecthood, edited by Michael Fried, 77–99. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1998. Garcia, Tristan. Form and Object: A Treatise on ­Things. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2014. Gell-­Mann, Murray. The Quark and the Jaguar Adventures in the ­Simple and Complex. New York: W. H. Freeman, 1994. Harman, Graham. The Qua­dru­ple Object. Winchester, UK: Zero Books, 2011. Hemingway, Ernest. “The Art of Fiction XXI.” Paris Review 18 (Spring 1958): 61–89. Jones, Peter, B. “Revealing Details Lewerentz at Klippan.” In Sigurd Lewerentz, edited by Nicola Flora, Paolo Giardiello, and Gennaro Postiglione, 383–385. London: Phaidon, 2013. Snowden, Edward. “Astro Noise.” In Astro Noise: A Survival Guide for Living ­under Total Surveillance, edited by Laura Poitras, 120–122. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016.


The zombie i­sn’t just any monster, but one with a pedigree of social critique.1 —­Lars Bang Larsen

The zombie is both neoliberalism’s baby and its often-­cunning, often-­ witless transformer. It is nurtured by a postdemo­cratic society that “coloniz[es] the brain and ner­vous system”2 and puts forth a surreal temporal warp in which speedy economic transactions contrast with the plodding slowness of po­liti­cal democracy.3 Indulging in this warp, the zombie is capable of imagining the ­future anew. The zombie follows, eats, and replaces the cyborg. What follows is an un-­zombie-­like (read: descriptive) walk through the territory covered by current aes­the­ti­cians shaping our ­future in and out of neoliberalism. It is motivated by the possibility of con­temporary aesthetic theory ­today to be critically engaged and activate new imaginaries. Particularly in the context of our current president, Donald Trump, the issue of aesthetic agency and the possibility for re­sis­tance is imperative. How does the zombie—­ironically or predictably—­unleash aesthetic activism?4 I know this question is inherently suspect to the aesthetic clubs examined ­here—my inquiry is entirely instrumental and too versed in Critical Theory to be patient with ­either aesthetic or philosophic navel-­gazing. But it also wants to argue that the artists do better in their activism than do the theorists dominating the aesthetic debate. This is surely due to art’s visual seduction that lends itself more easily than “knowledge” to indoctrination as well as its ability to put forward contradictory thoughts in a single image. In this, the zombie, both the subject and the object of current aesthetic production, is an able and seductive protagonist.



Accelerationism insists that the only radical response to capitalism is to  speed up and exacerbate its disruptive, alienating, and decoding ­tendencies—to what end is left undetermined. The Accelerationist zombie is wired—­electrically and chemically. Its techno-­social body has been mutating gradually from the nineteenth c­ entury when Marx sprung the new proletariat from the factory and Nietz­sche proposed his Uberman, to the mid-­twentieth ­century, when poststructuralism/post-1968 unleashed a jouissance-­infused cultural appropriator, to a 1980s underground raver, to a 1990s darkside cyberculture.5 What the Accelerationist zombie should NOT do, however, is protest, disrupt, critique, or await its demise at the hands of capitalism’s own contradictions. The type of Accelerationism taken most seriously by cultural theorists ­today—­offered by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, authors of the #Accelerate Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics—is “left” Accelerationism. Original “right” Accelerationism came into focus (and is still ongoing) with Nick Land’s “dark ecologies,” an extreme neolibertarianism that indulges cap­i­tal­ist chaos to its fullest. In his Cybernetic Culture Research Unit—­ experimenting in “futurism, techno-­science, philosophy, mysticism, numerology, complexity theory, and science fiction”6—­Land unveils a quasi-­eugenicism. In contrast to this ultra-­r ight cultural frame, Srnicek’s and Williams’s analy­sis shows its Marxist stripes: “Continued financial crisis has led governments to embrace the paralyzing death spiral policies of austerity, privatization of social welfare ser­vices, mass unemployment, and stagnating wages. Increasing automation in production pro­cesses … is evidence of the secular crisis of capitalism.”7 Addressing unemployment, stagnant wages, automation, and recognizing the “breakdown of the planetary climactic system,”8 they speak to the left. But in trashing the left’s traditional politics—­“impotent” or­ga­nized ­labor, self-­indulgent “folkpolitics” (read: protests and direct actions), short-­ sighted localism, “relentless horizontalism”—­they raise the question of ­whether accelerationism can be distinguished from cap­i­tal­ist acquiescence. As critics have wondered, of what notion of history—­Hegelian, Marxist, or other­wise—is i­magined to be at the other end of this history? Alienation is the active ingredient motivating the drive to accelerate, the drive to move beyond the known pres­ent. We must take the alienation that

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comes with capitalism and use it to push for a dif­fer­ent f­uture. “Alienation is a mode of enablement, and humanity is an incomplete vector of transformation,” say Srnicek and Williams. This is not Adornoesque alienation, however. Accelerationism’s alienation, as described by Sadie Plant (for whom Accelerationism was purportedly created) with regard to gender, ­doesn’t assume you know what you are alienated from: “It’s always been problematic to talk about the liberation of w ­ omen ­because that presupposes that we know what ­women are. If both men and ­women have been or­ga­nized into the forms we currently take, then we ­don’t want to liberate what we are now.  … It’s not a question of liberation so much as … re-­engineering.”9 Accelerationism’s entrée into aesthetics is complex. As a po­liti­cal philosophy, it has no inherent aesthetic component. But artists have attached themselves to Accelerationism and Srnicek and Williams describe the virtues of images exploring the deep materialism embodied in our information-­driven, open-­access, blog-­connected world. The preferred images are a cool “data sublime,” “an aesthetic of user interface–­style efficiency and transparency rather than beauty.”10 This sits, however, beside the ongoing per­sis­tence of  “right” Accelerationist cyborgy, excessive, and over-­ produced images, confusing the subliminal message; indeed, theories forced to deal with the above ambiguity are both awkward and familiar. The awkwardness lies in the esoteric machinations that t­ hese theorists must go to in order to promote an image/message of immediacy: accelerationist art “negate[s] all meaning in an attempt to draw attention to the destructive forces necessitating the form of its creation;”11 it “leaves ­behind the category of the uncategorizable in order to unravel the po­liti­cal proj­ect that con­temporary art is subject to.”12 The familiarity is tied to the work of Jean-­François Lyotard who has pronounced similar ideas about the sublime—­which occurs “when the imagination fails to pres­ent an object which might, if only in princi­ple, come to match the concept” and “cannot illustrate it with a sensible object which would be the case for it”13—­and about the postmodern—­which “puts forward the unpresentable in pre­sen­ ta­tion itself [and] searches for new pre­sen­ta­tions, not in order to enjoy them but in order to impart a stronger sense of the unpresentable.”14 For the artist trying to implement Accelerationist art, the directive is tough, if not ultimately self-­defeating.15 As Brad Troemel describes, in a social media–­branding world in which “even the youn­gest art students


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have blogs where they decontextualize and mix work by themselves and ­others, with art old and new becoming ‘recyclable material,’ ”16 artists become “aesthletes” who produce constantly in order to marshal the attention of the global community, ­because “artistic progression ­will come more surely from the stress of strenuous making than from contemplative reverie.” Troemel concludes that net culture produces not “art without artists,” as Anton Vidokle wrote, but “artists without art”—­the still-­born zombie. And the issue of Accelerationist activism? When we remember that Srnicek and Williams condemn activism, that is merely leftist self-­help flailing—­the Occupy movement is for them an example of activism’s ineffectuality—it is still-­born. Despite this dismissal, however, Srnicek’s and Williams’s call to replace folk politics with an intellectually driven analy­sis and strategic economic attack is worth heeding. Their description of neoliberalism’s concerted, lengthy, and think tank–­promoted assault on Keynesian economics (an argument better developed in Srnicek and Williams’s Inventing the ­Future) is chilling. As described by them, the Mont Perlin Society or­ga­nized by Friedrich Hayek provided the basic ideological infrastructure for neoliberalism to penetrate not just economic theory, but politics. Likewise, their call to engage technological changes and automization to usurp their power for our own Leftist agenda avoids the nostalgia that Marxists often have for preindustrialization and directs artist to an open-­ended and, I believe, demo­cratically focused ­future. The result is that Accelerationism holds keys to the need for aesthetic activism even as it precludes, ostensibly, its possibility. Its zombie is anxious to run but is stalled by debilitating intellectual imperatives. OBJECT-­ORIENTED ONTOLOGY

Object-­oriented ontology (OOO) insists that nothing is e­ ither more or less than an object. Objects, historically overlooked in philosophy as the passive receiver of subjective ­will, are ontologically (in their status as beings) upgraded; ­humans, now mere objects, are ontologically downgraded. In contrast to Accelerationism’s athletic and aggressive zombie, OOO’s is withdrawn, ghostly, but phenomenologically charismatic. As Nathan Gale offers, “As nonhuman objects take on h ­ uman characteristics, they become creepy or horrific. Yet, looked at from the opposite end, as humanity is

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stripped away of language and of the ability to create and fantasize, it too becomes horrendous.  … OOO must deal with the creature that pres­ents the true meeting of object and ­human—­the zombie.”17 If Accelerationism is a po­liti­cal movement without a philosophy, OOO is a philosophy without politics (as are most philosophies dealing with ontology).18 OOO’s philosopher-­culprit is Emmanuel Kant. Criticized most strongly by Quentin Meillassoux, Kant’s presumption of the knowing, active subject and the inert, passive object has allowed, so it goes, philosophic avoidance of objects as they r­ eally are. Graham Harman, the most celebrated of the OOO ontologists—­indeed, the one to define OOO’s “flat ontology”—­concurs but takes as his starting point the work of Bruno Latour and Actor-­Network theory that first questioned our scientific assumption that our objects of study—­things—­had nothing to say about their examination. In Harman’s description of the world, a preference for science meets a Heideggerian critique in which the division ­isn’t between subject and object but between two kinds of object, sensuous and real. The real is the tree that lasts when no one is alive to perceive it; the sensual is the one that is revealed in perception and fades when we sleep or die; the quasi-­alive zombie object. In this constellation of object-­oriented materialism, ­there is no Marxist material dialectics, no Hegelian contradictions, and no way to account for how objects accumulate power. And if Accelerationism had alienation as its rational context, OOO has nihilism. The nihilism rests in Ray Brassier, an original member of the Speculative Realists (the uber-­category of OOO), but now one of its major critics, who believes OOO d­ oesn’t go far enough in its nihilism and identifies the h ­ uman as a biological machine that, if understood correctly, exempts consciousness. For him, our construction of meaning is “useful fiction” only.19 Brassiere sees nihilism not as an existential quandary but as a speculative opportunity offered by a world of nonmeaningful m ­ atter in which h ­ uman values are a “fluke in an uncaring and fundamentally entropic universe.”20 OOO is largely distinguished from the larger category of Speculative Realism for its attempt to avoid such a radical nihilism. OOO would claim that a flat ontology of only objects is not equated with nothingness or meaninglessness. Nevertheless, perhaps like Nick Land’s original dark ecol­ogy that invades “left” Accelerationism, Brassier’s nihilism permeates the OOO discourse in its dismissal of ­human access to “meaning.”


Peggy Deamer

Like Accelerationism, OOO is not inherently an aesthetic proj­ect (­unless we define aesthetics as a state of epistemological knowing as opposed to art practice). D ­ oing away with meaningful authorship (and the primacy of intuition and interpretation) or the meaningful object (what objects are worth creating as “art” can never be broached) makes aesthetics a tricky subject. But as with Accelerationism, OOO has nevertheless been enthusiastically picked up by artists of many stripes. One can see the attraction for artists to a leveling of all ­things to a baseline objectivity; art, as the production of objects, is not transcendent but it is also not marginal. As the editors to Speculative Aesthetics say (unsarcastically) in their introduction, speculative realism “enlivens … the autonomous object with the thrill of philosophic profundity.”21 But OOO’s entrée into philosophic circles also coincided with aesthetic trajectories to which it easily attaches: the ecological critiques of ­human instrumentalization of nature; the interest in the nonhuman networks to data art; the commitment to the “real” materiality that permeates t­ hose posthuman networks—­all of t­ hese have the mark of an undead dead, a dramatization of the oddity of what has become real­ ity in the pres­ent, affect-­driven “experience economy.”22 OOO’s aesthetic robustness also rests, emphatically and surprisingly, on its link to Accelerationism. Given that Accelerationism is po­liti­cally and eco­nom­ically driven and OOO is not, and that Accelerationism engages a teleologically propelled ­future and OOO emphasizes universal constants, the intellectual comingling is not automatically organic. But a conceptual affinity between Accelerationism’s alienation and OOO’s nihilism and their shared dismay for the pres­ent allows cross-­fertilization. But the affinity also resides in an only mildly disguised, shared postcriticality that believes that one should not be beholden to the intellectually exhausting onus of critique. In the introduction to the 2014 The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism, the editors (Levi Bryant, Nick Srnicek, and Graham Harman) describe the authors gathered in the book as rejecting “the repetitive continental focus on texts, discourse, social practices, and ­human finitude,” to speculate “once more about the nature of real­ity in­de­pen­ dently of thought and of humanity more generally.”23 In the shared antijudgment of the two schools of thought, it is clear that t­hose included in or addressed by the book ­don’t want to worry about cooption, reification, or alienation: ­don’t worry, be happy, make. Artists responded.

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One gets the senses that the theorists of Accelerationism and OOO have been happily surprised by artists’ uptake of their “synthesized” ideologies and that their subsequent aesthetic theorization has been playing catch-up to the art, justifying on their terms the mystery of a relevance that outstrips rational ideology. ­Under the banner of  “Speculative Aesthetics,” the pooled OOO and Accelerationist theorists—­Harman, Meillassoux, Brassier, Bryant, Srnicek, and Williams—­justify in their terms the success and relevance of the artists.24 As ­these vari­ous authors suggest, art “grasps a real that is not of its own making, and that its capacities may be reshaped as a function of the real”25 and (this is their own description) “exposes its own compromises with the aesthetic, in an ongoing admission of failure and culpability.”26 It’s a scramble for postvalidations of aesthetic sponsorship. But even if ­these observations are postrationalizations, one is sympathetic to this thought in the introduction to Speculative Aesthetics: An examination of “the image” … reveals a contradiction.  … [D]espite [a] faith in the radical potential of aesthetic experience, any ­actual, par­tic­u­lar image—­including ­those that art itself produces—is assumed inevitably to be corrupted by ­those same forces. Aesthetic experience, incapable of realising its radical potential, can only gesture t­owards it, and must constantly strive to evade determination (or delegate it to the viewer). In the ensuing crisis, con­ temporary art vigilantly exposes its own compromises with the aesthetic, in an ongoing admission of failure and culpability.27

In admitting the limits of rational theorization and the self-­contradictory nature of aesthetic production, the authors articulate a new set of par­ameters in which imagery takes advantage of its complicit and compromised role in con­temporary neoliberal culture. And they suggest that, aesthetically, the illogical comingling yields provocative if discursively incongruous results. That provocation surely has to do with art’s ability to cut through and across theoretically divisive positions. Operating through sense, material, and affect, it productively penetrates the psyche precisely b­ ecause it, ­either naively or intentionally, conveys complex and contradictory, but nevertheless profoundly held, worldviews. Innumerable artists have been energized by the affirmation they receive on the importance of objects, the drive to technology’s infiltration into image making, and the blurring of social media, data, propaganda, and aesthetic production and reception/consumption. In other words, the zombie morphs willingly into its


Peggy Deamer

new age, IT configuration. Power­ful, unfettered, angry, and technically hyped—it is coming ­after you. For activism, this is good. DISOBEDIENT ARTISTS28

Freedom is not a given—­and it’s certainly not given by anything “natu­ral.” —­Laboria Cuboniks

The zombie myth originated in Haiti, where zombification was feared as a re-­enslavement of freed Haitians in their sleep. The zombie ever since is kept at bay, but also unleashes our most primordial instincts of re­sis­tance. In the hands of certain con­temporary activist artists, the zombie is a figure of po­liti­cally inscribed “otherness” that both represents a “living death” and also a propulsion, via repulsion, into a f­uture de-­extinction. Subjectivities that compulsorily inhabit the space of  “living death” make clear “the ways that the state imposes scripts on lives that d­ on’t assimilate with normative views of what ‘living’ means.”29 Xenofeminism, Afrofuturism, and Tomorrow’s Thoughts ­Today are examples of activist aesthetic practices that utilize ideas from Accelerationism/ OOO-­combined Speculative Aesthetics while discarding the antipathy for politics that resides in OOO and for bottom-up critique of activism in Accelerationism. T ­ hese practices share an aggressive opposition to the pres­ent and “speculate” about our f­uture subjectivities. In this, they share a con­spic­u­ous rewriting of what constitutes the artist, the art object, and the art audience. The artist is not singular, but a community of authors that function more like NGOs; the work is not positioned in museum, but inhabits blogs, websites, videos, street per­for­mances, and academic field trips; and the audience is not the leisure class nor t­ hose who need “liberation” but rather the everyday citizen poised to invent their own ­future. The content of the work ­matters less than its effect on the viewer, so form ­matters not for its decorous dexterity but for its call to action. XENOFEMINISM

Xenofeminism formulates a feminism “adequate to the twenty-­first ­century” and explores “alien time” that shifts our understanding of what temporality is and how it functions for the ­human. As the Xenofeminism

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website states, “Xenofeminism is not a bid for a revolution, but a wager on the long game of history, demanding imagination, dexterity, and per­sis­ tence.”30 Xenofeminism’s aesthetic is cold, flat, technical, “not virtual or material but both.” T ­ here are no images of oppression and while it addresses “a real­ity crosshatched with fiber-­optic cables, radio and micro­waves, oil and gas pipelines, aerial and shipping routes,” it ­doesn’t reproduce repre­ sen­ta­tions of this real­ity e­ ither. Rather, the technology of information dissemination itself—­the computer screen that is navigated by moving up and down or scrolling sideways; the layered and contrapunctual motion of script, background, and video on a home page; the dynamic change of background color on screen; the jerky image repixelization—­these all compel the viewer into twenty-­first-­century technology and what it signifies for feminism. Still, in this slick, manifesto-­bound website art, the operative image is a zombie ­woman emerging out of mummification. The Xenofeminism Manifesto espouses some OOO thoughts (“This does not mean that the distinction between the ontological and the normative, between fact and value, is simply cut and dried. The vectors of normative antinaturalism and ontological naturalism span many ambivalent battlefields.”), but its ideological progenitor is Accelerationism. In its strident rejection of past feminist strug­gles, its embrace of alienation, and its usurpation of technology for postcapitalist aims, Srnicek and Williams are clearly heard: “The excess of modesty in feminist agendas of recent de­cades is not proportionate to the monstrous complexity of our real­ity, a real­ity crosshatched with … the unrelenting, simultaneous execution of millions of communication protocols with e­ very passing millisecond;31 we are all alienated—­but have we ever been other­wise? It is through, and not despite, our alienated condition that we can ­free ourselves from the muck of immediacy.  … [A]lienation is the ­labor of freedom’s construction.”32 Xenofeminism adheres to Accelerationism’s call to operate as a think tank. Its manifesto (parallel to that of Accelerationism) is a call to an overarching forum for marshalling in the f­uture; its rhizomatic affiliations with other meta-­organizations that transcend art practice are its hoped-­for Mont Perlin Society moments. Diann Bauer, one of the major figures of Xenofeminism, is affiliated not only with Laboris Cuboniks, the group that produced Xenofeminism, but with Alliance of the Southern Triangle, “an experimental initiative exploring the secession of Southern Florida from the State of Florida”; the Office of Applied Complexity, an international


Peggy Deamer

collective that explores “institutional complexification to provide both greater freedoms and greater welfare si­mul­ta­neously”; and Fixing the ­Future, a blog telling us “how to act in the ­future.” But it thankfully ­doesn’t worry about the fact that it, as a feminist movement, might merit the scorn Accelerationism heaps on “autonomous zones” and localized protest. Its strength is in producing a subjectivity that performs gender at the most bodily/local and the most abstracted level si­mul­ta­neously. AFROFUTURISM 2.0

Afrofuturism connects African and African American aesthetic practices to science and technology. In its current twenty-­first-­century form, it links graffiti to math; low-­r ider cars to robotics; technically sensitive dance floors to coding; reappropriation, improvisation, and conceptual remixing to informatics. The zombie is intrinsic to Afrofuturism not only via the Haitian freed-­slave narrative but also in its deployment in science fiction—­the dominant literary and filmic mode of Afrofuturism. In Afrofuturism 2.0, a movement coined at the 2013 “Alien Bodies” conference, that zombie is now networked, digitally enhanced, gender fluid, and data augmented.33 Afrofuturism originated over a hundred years ago but the term and concept came into focus when writers such as Mark Dery defined the term as “speculative fiction that addresses African American concerns in the context of twentieth-­century techno-­culture.”34 The musician and film maker Sun Ra exemplifies the genre’s fluidity across cosmologies and mediums. His ­music is reconstructed around “interweaving compositional and improvisatory creative princi­ples with programmatic affects” while his film Space Is the Place, his leaflets, and broadsheets all link ancient African culture, especially Egypt, to the space age. If early Afrofuturism was primarily concerned with techno-­culture, the digital divide, ­music, video, and lit­er­a­ture, Afrofuturism 2.0 targets ­counter histories: “hacking and or appropriating the influence of network software, data base logic, cultural analytics … posthuman possibility, the speculative sphere.” In the hands of Nettrice Gaskins, one of the primary strategists/artists of 2.0, the goal of exploring “techno-­vernacular creativity” and inserting Art into Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM to STEAM) is to pull underrepresented groups, whose work is creative but not self-­identified as ­either “art” or science, into both. Gaskins’s contribution to Afrofuturism 2.0 is entitled “Web 3.0: Vernacular

Aesthetic Critique/Aesthetic Activism 291

Cartography and Augmented Space,” in which she explores how—in the context of geometric charts and maps, virtual and real-­world avatars, and smartphones—­the black spatial experience is navigated and communicated. The affinity of this to Accelerationism—­and its techno-­assertive, future-­ oriented zombie—is evident, but its connection to OOO philosophy is increasingly overt; the principal difference between original Afrofuturism and Afrofuturism 2.0 is its stated exploration of OOO. Indeed, one could say that OOO gives voice to an always pres­ent appreciation of the mystical power of objects. Afrofuturism’s use of the Conga Cosmogram—an ideogram of a cross, a quartered circle or diamond, a seashell spiral, or a special cross with solar emblems at each ending—­represents the Kongo ­people’s spiritual continuity and re­nais­sance. Like many works of Afro­ futurism, it operates at all scales—­the universe and tattoos—­and in all forms of art—­lit­er­a­ture, dance, painting, film, per­for­mance.35 It is an object speaking across vari­ous objective planes. But the particularly speculative nature of Afrofuturism 2.0 (see “Afrofuturism 2.0 and the Black Speculative Art Movement: A Manifesto” by Reynaldo Anderson) ekes out the connection to Speculative Realism more thoroughly, rejecting as it does Kantian, Eurocentric, and (white) humanist epistemes. In their place are “Esoterica, Animism, and Magical Realism.” The book Ghost Nature—­ which “exposes the limits of ­human perspective … [and] a slippery network of sometimes monstrous creatures, plants, and technological advances”36—­brings together Tim Morton of OOO fame with Gaskin and Jamila Woods of Afrofuturism 2.0. The result is a more critical, activist Afrofuturism that is less content to let aesthetics take its “natu­ral” course ­toward invading a white culture industry than replacing it. TOMORROW’S THOUGHTS T ­ ODAY

Tomorrow’s Thoughts ­Today, a London-­based think tank centering on the work of Liam Young, explores the possibilities of the “fantastic and the perverse.” The “fictional speculations”—­mining the consequences of emerging and environmental f­utures—­are “critical instruments” that give a nonjudgmental but way-­too-­accurate picture of current urban life. “I Spy with My Machine Eye,” “a filmic tour told from the perspective of a drone drifting across the planet,”37 and the video “Where the City ­Can’t See,” “the world’s first narrative fiction film shot entirely with l­aser scanners” and


Peggy Deamer

(while depicting “the ­future Chinese-­controlled Detroit Economic Zone”) “recorded through the eyes of the robots that manage it”38—­these are products of surveillance-­camera-­meets-­x-­ray-­meets-­hologram-­meets-­ LED-­billboard-­meets-­war-­film. The total creepiness of the drone-­ infested streets outside and worker alienation on the inside is e­ ither pre-­or postzombie, but in ­either case, “normal” ­people ­won’t live ­here. The website is an aesthetic artifact—­robot type and yellow marker flagged—­with only the slightest amount of affect. It is also si­mul­ta­neously a branding exercise, an epistemology about time and speed, a video repository, and announcements of past and f­uture events in which Liam Young participates. Divided into three modes of thought—­fast, medium, and slow—­the site indicates that t­hese are necessary and sufficient typologies of con­temporary experience. Speed replaces depth both architecturally and intellectually. It ­doesn’t m ­ atter that the same information is found in each category; the designations make you read all to determine the difference. In addition, the website announces (past) applications to the Unknown Fields Division’s field trips, “nomadic studios” that venture out to “the ends of the earth to bear witness to alternative worlds, alien landscapes, industrial ecologies, and precarious wildernesses.” ­Here, the artistic “circus” negotiates dif­fer­ent global supply chains that deliver to our material-­ less information networks their material origins. Madagascar is examined for its illegal trade of tortoise shells and sapphires; Mongolia for its radioactive lake; Bolivia for its lithium-­soaked flatlands. The trips are aesthetic happenings as much as research; nevertheless, documentation = real­ity = a race for the (possibility of a) ­future. Tomorrow’s Thoughts ­Today is a virtual poster child for Speculative Aesthetics, revealing not just its double OOO and Accelerationist origins but, indeed, the more dubious aspects of each. On the one hand Young teaches at Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc), where the avowed interest in ­doing away with “moral pragmatism” is part of the school’s dominant OOO apo­liti­cal ideology; on the other, he participates in Nick Land’s dark-­side Accelerationist events, endorsing, implicitly, a libertarian politics that alarms as much as activates.39 And the ambiguity of the field trips—­art or critical reportage; circus or fact finding?—­walks the very thin line of golly-­gee “look what global capitalism has wrought!” and indignant critique. ButYoung knows what his image work can do. As “fiction and entertainment coordinator” at Sci-Arc, he observes:

Aesthetic Critique/Aesthetic Activism 293 Like a Trojan ­horse, we insert architectural ideas into popu­lar mediums from film to video games to documentary, to expose new audiences to architectural and urban discussions.  … The idea is that we can parasitically occupy the entertainment industry and explore it as a site to embed and share critical ideas about our city. Some ­people may be swept up in the discourse around what their cities are becoming, ­others may take away something more subliminal, while some may not see it at all—­but the ideas are still t­here, and hopefully they leak into general culture in some way.40

The activist message is received. FINAL THOUGHTS

As a figure defined by its liminality, the zombie, it has been pointed out, illustrates our doubts about humanity in an era in which the ­human condition may be experiencing a crisis of both conscience and consciousness. As a post-­cyborg in dispute with how capitalism destroys the body and soul of the cap­i­tal­ist worker bees, the zombie is both an effective model for imagining the condition of posthumanity and a post(mortem) ­human. The zombie’s “negative dialectic” reshapes the way we think about the boundary between subject/object, master/slave. At the same time, one c­ an’t help but be reminded of Adorno whose negative dialectic was so critical of fluid ideologies and the aesthetics of pop­u­lism. In a recent article by Alex Ross in The NewYorker entitled “The Frankfurt School Knew Trump Was Coming,”41 he points out the link Adorno identified between the mass-­culture apparatus and our ac­cep­tance of the blurred line between fact and fiction that gave us Hitler. In Adorno’s 1951 book Minima Moralia, he wrote: “Lies have long legs: they are ahead of their time. The conversion of all questions of truth into questions of power, a pro­cess that truth itself cannot escape if it is not to be annihilated by power, not only suppresses truth as in earlier despotic ­orders, but has attacked the very heart of the distinction between true and false, which the hirelings of logic w ­ ere in any case diligently working to abolish. So Hitler, of whom no one can say ­whether he died or escaped, survives.”42 It makes one conscious of the fact that new aesthetic activism, so indebted to social media, “data,” and information technologies, are not “liberating” just ­because they are new, accessible, attractive, and “open.” Vigilance is required. Zombies do not rest.


Peggy Deamer NOTES

1. ​Lars Bang Larsen, “Zombies of Immaterial L ­ abor: The Monster and the Death of Death,” e-­flux, Journal #15, accessed June 3, 2017, http://­www​.­e​-­flux​.­com​ /journal/15/61295/zombies-­of-­immaterial-­labor-­the-­modern-­monster-­and​-­the​ -­death-­of-­death/. 2. ​Larsen, “Zombies of Immaterial ­Labor.” 3. ​Susanne von Falkenhausen, “Too Much Too Fast: The Work of Art in the Age of Digital Circulation—­A Lament,” Frieze​.­com, accessed June 10, 2017, http://­ freize​.­com​/­article​/­too​-­much​-­too​-­fast​/­. 4. ​This paper, while absenting Jacques Rancière from its purview, needs to acknowledge that many of the concerns regarding the possibility of art to be po­liti­ cal are addressed in his work, albeit in a dif­fer­ent, nonintersecting way. The differences between Rancière and the discussed movements are stark. He alone does not envision a zombie subjectivity; he alone is not interested in the f­ uture as a par­tic­ u­lar intellectual prob­lem. For Rancière, aesthetics is not a tactic to maneuver around capitalism, but a foundational condition within subjectivity that fends off capitalism. But ­there are comparisons. As Levi Bryant, one of the coeditors of The Speculative Turn with Harman and Srnicek, has pointed out, ­there is an affinity between OOO’s assumption of ontological equality of all ­things and Rancière’s equality of all subjectivities. And both Rancière and Accelerationism subscribe to a form of neo-­Marxism and for both, “protest” art is anathema to the more foundational agency of repre­sen­ta­tional appropriation. 5. ​For a well-­informed article on and critique of Accelerationism, see Jette Gindner, “Accelerationism: A Critique, Seminar in Pop-­, Sub-­, Lowbrow Cultural Studies,” accessed July  1, 2017, https://­w​ /­Accelerationism_A_Critique. 6. ​Levi Bryant, Nick Srnicek, and Graham Harman, The Speculative Turn (Melbourne: re:press, 2011), 6. 7. ​Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek, “#Accelerate Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics,” Critical ­L egal Thinking, accessed March  13, 2017, http://­ criticallegalthinking​.­com​/­2013​/­05​/­14​/­accelerate​-­manifesto​-­for​-­an​-­accelera​tio​ nist​-­politics​/­. 8. ​Williams and Srnicek, “#Accelerate Manifesto.” 9. ​Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, Inventing the ­Future: Postcapitalism and a World without Work (London: Verso, 2015), 82. 10. ​Rob Myers, “Accelerationist Art,” Furtherfield, accessed May 13, 2017, http://­­art. 11. ​Steven Shaviro, “Accelerationist Aesthetics: Necessary Inefficiency in Times of Real Subsumption,” e-­flux #46, accessed June 4, 2017, http://­www​.­e​-­flux​.­com​

Aesthetic Critique/Aesthetic Activism 295 /­journal/46/60070/accelerationist-­aesthetics-­necessary-­inefficiency-­in-­times​ -­of-­real-­subsumption/. 12. ​Amanda Beech, “Art and Its Science,” in Speculative Aesthetics (Falmouth, MA: Urbanomic, 2014), 18. 13. ​Jean-­François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), 78. 14. ​Lyotard, Postmodern Condition, 81. Lyotard is acknowledged in Srnicek and Williams’s text, but only for offering a definition of postmodernity. The failure of Accelerationism’s advocates to explore Lyotard’s ideas more fully is unfortunate given the fuel they offer to a discourse of the f­ uture—­“Post modern [sic; his emphasis] would have to be understood according to the paradox of the f­uture (post) anterior (modo)—at the same time that it is (sadly) logical given Accelerationism’s commitment to ignore ‘failed’ past discourses.” 15. ​Susanne von Falkenhausen has also suggested, “As the structures framing previous art practice (authorship, property, context, and market) dis­appear, new strategies emerge to compensate for ­these losses. However utopianly anti-­ capitalist and anti-­consumerist the resulting changes might be, they are eco­nom­ ically unfavourable for the artists themselves. Property is replaced by the capital of the largest pos­si­ble digital fan community.” von Falkenhausen, “Too Much Too Fast.” 16. ​Brad Troemel, “Art a­ fter Social Media,” WordPress​.­com, accessed June 28, 2017, https://­­blog-­art-­after​ -­social-­media.pdf. 17. ​Nathan Gale, “Zombies Ate My Ontology,” An Uncanny Ontology, accessed June 3, 2017, http://­un-­­ate-­my​ -­ontology.html. 18. ​Recent publications, aware of pos­si­ble apo­liti­cal irrelevance, have addressed this lack. Graham Harman’s Immaterialism (Cambridge: Polity, 2016) does attempt to expand on OOO’s relevance for politics. 19. ​Matthew D. Segall, “SR/OOO and Nihilism: A Response to Harman and Bryan,” Footnotes2Plato, accessed June 4, 2017, https://­​ /2011/07/13/srooo-­and-­nihilism-­a-­response-­to-­harman-­and-­bryant/. 20. ​Matthew D. Segall, “Cosmos, Anthropos, and Theos in Harman, Teilhard, and Whitehead,” Footnoes2Plato, accessed June 4, 2017, https://­​ /2011/07/12/cosmos-­anthropos-­and-­theos-­in-­harman-­teilhard-­and-­whitehead/. 21. ​Mackay, Speculative Aesthetics, 2. 22. ​The critiques of this aestheticization are not surprising; all are variations of Jacques Rancière’s observation that OOO affirms an old, modernist belief in the autonomous aesthetic object. (See Svenja Bromberg, “The


Peggy Deamer

Anti-­Political Aesthetics of Objects in Worlds Beyond,” accessed May 15, 2017, http://­www.metamute​.org/editorial/articles/anti-­political​-­aesthetics-­objects​ -­and-­worlds-­beyond). Indeed, OOO’s endorsement of the object as significant in and of itself easily lends itself to formalist indulgence. Since OOO offers no way to judge what works are good or bad, worth making or not, it opens a ­free space for experimentation for experimentations sake. 23. ​Bryant, Speculative Turn, 3. 24. ​Graham Harman and Nick Srnicek, together with Levi Bryant, a coeditor, produced Speculative Aesthetics: Continental Materialism and Realism, with essays by Harman, Meillassoux, Brassier, and Srnicek. Speculative Aesthetic, edited by Robin Mackay, Luke Pendrell, and James Trafford, has articles by Ray Brassier, Srnicek, and Williams. The affinity is represented as well in the Sonic Acts Festival. Founded in 1994, the stated theme of the Sonic Acts Festival—­work at the intersections of art, technology, m ­ usic, and science—­has morphed into a forum for an Accelerationism (recent proj­ects include the three-­year “art, research, and commissioning” proj­ect Dark Ecol­ogy) that is also OOO inspired. Graham Harman led a full-­day master class, presented a lecture, and participated in a roundtable discussion at the 2015 festival “The Geologic Imagination.” 25. ​Mackay, Speculative Aesthetic, 2–3. 26. ​Mackay, 3. 27. ​Mackay, 3. 28. ​I get the term “disobedient” from the exhibition on activist art, “Disobedient Objects,” at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 2014–2015. Catherine Flood, one of the curators of the exhibition, presented it at the Aesthetic Activism conference at the Yale School of Architecture on the same panel with Nettrice Gaskin and Diann Bauer. 29. ​Nicole Gervasio, in her review of Jack Halberstam’s “Zombie Humanism at the End of the World,” accessed August 12, 2017, http://­​ /jack-­halberstams-­queer-­futures-­zombie-­humanism-­end-­world. 30. ​Xenofeminism Manifesto, “Zero,” accessed October 2016, http://­www.labo​ 31. ​Xenofeminism Manifesto, “Zero.” 32. ​Xenofeminism Manifesto. 33. ​See Zora Neale Hurston’s work on Haitian zombie-­ism, and the science fiction of Samuel Delaney, Tananarive Due, and most recently Colson Whitehead’s “speculative fiction” in The Intuitionist and Zone One. 34. ​Quoted in Namwali Serpill, “Africa Has Always Been Sci-­Fi,” in Literary Hub, accessed June 12, 2017, http://­­has-­always-­been-­sci-fi/.

Aesthetic Critique/Aesthetic Activism 297 35. ​Gaskin is part of a book, Ghost Nature, that includes Timothy Morton and Graham Harman. 36. ​Reynaldo Anderson, “Afrofuturism 2.0 & the Black Speculative Art Movement: Notes on a Manifesto,” Academia​.­edu, accessed August 2, 2017, https://­www​​_THE_BLACK​_SPECU​ LATIVE​​_ART_MOVEMENT. 37. ​From the Tomorrow’s Thoughts ­Today website, “Fast Thoughts,” accessed July 12, 2017, http://­ 38. ​From the website “Slow Thoughts,” accessed July 12, 2017, http://­www​ 39. ​See Tomorrow’s Thoughts ­Today website, “City Everywhere: Kim Kardashian and the Dark Side of the Screen,” accessed July 12, 2017, http://­www​ 40. ​From the SCI-Arc website, https://­​-­films​ -­with​-­sci-­arcs-­liam-­young/. 41. ​Alex Ross, “The Frankfurt School Knew Trump Was Coming,” New Yorker, December 5, 2016. 42. ​Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia, accessed June 30, 2017, https://­www.marxists​ .org/reference/archive/adorno/1951/mm/ch02.htm. BIBLIOGRAPHY

Adorno, Theodor. Minima Moralia. Accessed June 30, 2017. https://­www.marxists​ .org/reference/archive/adorno/1951/mm/ch02.htm. Anderson, Reynaldo. “Afrofuturism 2.0 & the Black Speculative Art Movement: Notes on a Manifesto.” Accessed August 2, 2017. https://­​ /­30863657/AFROFUTURISM_2.0_and_THE​_BLACK_SPECULATIVE​_ART​ _MOVEMENT. Bang Larsen, Lars. “Zombies of Immaterial ­Labor: The Monster and the Death of Death.” e-­flux, Journal #15 (April 2010). Beech, Amanda. “Art and Its Science.” In Speculative Aesthetics, edited by Robin Mackay, Luke Pendrell, and James Trafford. Falmouth, UK: Urbanomic Media Ltd., 2014. Bryant, Levi, Nick Srnicek, and Graham Harman. “Introduction: T ­ owards a Speculative Philosophy.” The Speculative Turn. Melbourne: re:press, 2011. Gale, Nathan. “Zombies Ate My Ontology.” An Uncanny Ontology. Accessed August  17, 2009. http://­un-­​ -­ate-­my-­ontology.html.


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Gervasio, Nicole. “Review of Jack Halberstam’s ‘Zombie Humanism at the End of the World.’ ” Institute for Research on ­Women, Gender, and Sexuality Columbia University. Accessed July 6, 2015. http://­​-­halber stams-­queer-­futures-­zombie-­humanism-­end-­world. Gindner, Jette. “Accelerationism: A Critique, Seminar in Pop-­, Sub-­, Lowbrow Cultural Studies.” Accessed July 1, 2017. https://­​ /Accelerationism_A_Critique. Harman, Graham. Immaterialism. Cambridge: Polity, 2016. Lyotard, Jean-­François. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984. Mackay, Robin, Luke Pendrell, and James Trafford, James. “Introduction.” In Speculative Aesthetics. Falmouth, UK: Urbanomic Media Ltd., 2014. Morton, Timothy, Graham Harman, Laurie Palmer, João Florêncio, Nettrice Gaskins, Jamila Woods, and Caroline Picard. Ghost Nature. Chicago: Green Lantern, 2014. Myers, Rob. “Accelerationist Art.” Furtherfield. Accessed April 7, 2016. http://­­art. Rancière, Jacques. The Nights of ­Labor: The Workers’ Dream in Nineteenth ­Century France. Philadelphia: ­Temple University Press, 1989. Rancière, Jacques. The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible, edited and translated by Gabriel Rockhill. London: Bloomsbury, 2004. Ross, Alex. “The Frankfurt School Knew Trump Was Coming.” New York Times, December 5, 2016. Segall, Matthew D. “Cosmos, Antropos, and Theos in Harman, Teiljard, and Whitehead.” Footnotes2Plato. Accessed July  13, 2017. https://­​ /2011/07/12/cosmos-­anthropos-­and​-­theos-­in-­harman-­teilhard-­and-­whitehead/. Segall, Matthew D. “SR/OOO and Nihilism: A Response to Harman and Bryan.” Footnotes2Plato. Accessed July 13, 2011. https://­​ /13/srooo-­and-­nihilism-­a-­response-­to-­harman-­and-­bryant/. Serpill, Namwali. “Africa Has Always Been Sci-­Fi.” Literary Hub, April 1, 2016. http://­­has-­always-­been-­sci-fi/. Shaviro, Steven. “Accelerationist Aesthetics: Necessary Inefficiency in Times of Real Subsumption.” e-­f lux #46. June 2013. http://­w­a​ /­shows/e-­flux-­journal-­issue-46-­accelerationist-­aesthetics-­guest-­edited-­by-­gean -­moreno-2/. Srnicek, Nick, and Alex Williams. Inventing the F ­ uture: Postcapitalism and a World without Work. London: Verso, 2015.

Aesthetic Critique/Aesthetic Activism 299 Troemel, Brad. “Art a­ fter Social Media.” WordPress​.­com. Accessed June 20, 2017. https://­­blog-­art-­after​ -­social-­media.pdf. von Falkenhausen, Susanne. “Too Much Too Fast: The Work of Art in the Age of Digital Circulation—­A Lament.” Frieze​.­com. Accessed November 14, 2014. http://­freize​.­com​/­article​/­too​-­much​-­too​-­fast​/­. Williams, Alex, Nick Srnicek. “#Accelerate Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics.” Critical ­Legal Thinking. Accessed May 14, 2013. http://criticallegalthinking​ .­com​/­2013​/­05​/­14​/­accelerate​-­manifesto​-­for​-­an​-­accelerationist​-­politics​/­. Xenofeminism website. “Zero.” Accessed June 20, 2017. http://­www.laboria​ Young, Liam. “City Everywhere: Kim Kardashian and the Dark Side of the Screen.” Vimeo. Accessed July 20, 2017. https://­ Young, Liam. “Tomorrow’s Thoughts ­Today: Fast Thoughts.” Tomorrow’s Thoughts ­Today. Accessed July 4, 2017. http://­

18  THE STRANGERS AMONG US Caroline Picard


What happens when we think about our most everyday companions and the ways they disrupt or accommodate our h ­ uman structures? For instance, I tend to forget how strange our cat is. It is easy to take her presence for granted. ­After ten years of cohabitation, I am accustomed to both the cat’s form and personality. I have a lexicon of adjectives used to describe her: cute, reserved, sweet, in­de­pen­dent, inquisitive, bossy, self-­possessed, calculating, scampy—­the latter inspired by her special proclivity to seek out abandoned, half-­filled ­water glasses in our ­house and—­while staring at me from across the room—­insert a paw into the lip of the glass so as to knock the ­whole mess over. The activity provides our cat evident delight despite (or maybe ­because of) what­ever rage it elicits in me. Our understanding of one another has developed patterns over the years, patterns that lead me to say I know her, our cat. L ­ ittle Grey. I can describe her easily: she has yellow green eyes and a mottled gray coat that burns ever so slightly pink around the edges when backlit. Compared to other cats I’ve encountered, she is small, but like other cats quite athletic, prone to naps, vocal, and appreciative of dietary schedules. I would call her courageous without any evidence to prove as much. I would also say she is nice, citing her apparent restraint as proof: she rarely if ever bites or scratches ­humans and instead of killing insects follows them around u ­ ntil distracted by something ­else. Like all of the adjectives in my wheel­house however, niceness brings with it so many anthropocentric associations as to be misleading. In fact, all of ­those words fail, applying a ­human criterion that essentially eschews the host of unpredictable, irregular, and barely


Caroline Picard

noticeable aspects of her character. Like easily overlooked letters in En­glish words—­silent g’s, h’s, or r’s unearthed only by strange accent—­she has certain traits and tendencies on the very edge of my perception, possessing even more that elude me entirely. W ­ hether I am not literate enough in the gestural vocabulary of her ears, or b­ ecause I cannot parse e­ very consonant in a mew, my adjectives fail to translate all of her, driven as she is by a unique manifestation of nonhuman cat-­ness. She lives only partially in language, orbiting the periphery of h ­ uman speech like a foreigner who’s taken up residence abroad. While impossibly inadequate, my words nevertheless give me access to her friendship, and their regular use reflects, in part at least, the habit with which we relate to one another. I can anticipate her; she anticipates me. Despite our differences, we are friends. The Walker Art Center has an annual Internet Cat Festival in Minneapolis that attracts as many as ten thousand visitors—­people who arrange themselves in stadium seats to watch preselected cat videos and vote on their favorites. No doubt the museum is grateful for the event—­not only ­because it captures a con­temporary phenomenon, but also for its administrative statistics. (Imagine the delight of their grant writer when asked to report on museum attendance.) I too enjoy the celebrity of the species. Like his forty-­eight thousand followers, I could watch Maru dive into a dif­ fer­ent box all day.1 Part of the appeal of t­hese clips reflects exactly the strangeness I’m reaching to articulate: a specific form of—­often performative—­cat eccentricity. It resists total assimilation to ­human society, while being relatable enough to be celebrated. Take the Ninja Cat as another example—­the leggy animal appears on the far end of a corridor, and only approaches the viewer off camera. Each time the camera returns to its subject, the cat is closer, larger, and ever so slightly menacing. Or Teddy the Asshole Cat who sits calmly on a dresser ­until deciding, without provocation, to knock over a nearby ­bottle of pills; he looks at the camera yawningly thereafter. The strangeness of a feline companion is easily taken for granted in the midst of domestic routines, but e­ very so often something happens to illustrate the interspecies gulf between us. When we first meet Ulysses’s protagonist, Leopold Bloom, he stands in the kitchen talking to his h ­ ouse­cat. The animal does not repeat a single phrase; its diction changes according—it would seem—to Bloom’s vari­ous prompts. Although Joyce uses the same format to relate other h ­ uman conversations in the book, the animal’s meaning remains inaccessible; it is

The Strangers among Us 303

similarly impossible to gauge how much of Bloom’s meaning is conveyed to the cat. Still, they answer one another in a style of amicable habit, like neighbors speaking dif­fer­ent languages, familiar with the impasse of mutual understanding while enjoying a predictable companionship. The cat walked stiffly round a leg of the ­table with tail on high. —­Mkgnao! —­O, ­there you are, Mr Bloom said, turning from the fire. The cat mewed in answer and stalked again stiffly round a leg of the t­able, mewing. Just how she stalks over my writing ­table. Prr. Scratch my head. Prr. Mr Bloom watched curiously, kindly, the lithe black form.  … —­Milk for the pussens, he said. —­Mrkgnao! the cat cried.2

The cat’s phrases would seem identical at first, except for an easily overlooked r—as significant a difference as an ele­ment of code in DNA. In that tiny differentiation, the cat indicates the subtle, though possibly infinite, variation of replies at her disposal. To take the presence of such a small letter seriously not only grants the cat a deliberate capacity to answer Bloom, but also highlights the h ­ uman propensity to dismiss such differences as arbitrary. ­Every so often I glimpse the opaque white flesh surrounding our cat’s colored iris and I am struck by the reptilian character of her eyes. It occurs to me that if she was even twice my size she would not only kill me, but enjoy ­doing so. Suddenly I touch upon the uncharted landscape of her being—­that reticent horizon that evades apprehension as a monstrous, chimerical figure emerging in a dream, and—­defying translation—is shrugged off and forgotten the instant I wake up. It has no purchase in the linguistic chart of terms I use to filter my experience; as such it dissolves the minute I encounter the hemmed edges of quantifiable ­things: the bed, the pillow, the floor, the sink. How indeed am I to incorporate and map her unknown and par­tic­u­lar beastly-­ness in an anthropocentric vocabulary? Or better yet, how do I remember the vagaries of her impression if I cannot hobble its corners with words? If I happen to catch ­Little Grey studying the shower (a recent habit she developed during which she appears lost in thought for hours at a time while staring at the drain), I puzzle over her remote though evident purpose. Or, when interrupting one of her naps, I touch the bottom of a paw and, petting the soft, strangely


Caroline Picard

distinct pads ­there, feel her wrap that same paw ever so slightly around my fin­gers like a baby grasping the hand of a doctor. ­These fleeting moments highlight my own inability to comprehend the subject of her mind. She is not a snake, nor a child, nor is she my predator. She is a cat, something unsettled and unsettling. ­A fter she has seemingly spilled ­water everywhere on purpose and thundered off in a ­great, seemingly triumphant gallop across the room, I realize perhaps this cat has a sense of humor, in which knocking over glasses is a gag. Could it be? But the question itself belies our estrangement, for—if I know her, if we are friends—­I should know the answer before ever having asked. Mea­sur­ing humor is one of the first ­things you notice about a person. Yet ­here, I am groping in the dark like one who suspects an intimate friend of stealing. Does my suspicion illustrate some instinctual insight into that friend’s most private thief-­soul? Or do I only prove my own blindness, overlooking that companion’s integrity and, in so ­doing, destroy any ­viable trust between us? Beneath our familiar patterns, I am alienated from this dear being. INTERVIEW WITH A CAT

In The Animal That Therefore I Am, Jacques Derrida shares a series of reflections that pass from Alice in Wonderland to Genesis to Plato’s Republic ­under the overseeing and slightly uncomfortable gaze of his cat: No, no, my cat, the cat that looks at me in my bedroom or bathroom, this cat … does not appear h ­ ere to represent, like an ambassador, the im­mense symbolic responsibility with which our culture has always charged the feline race, from La Fontaine to Tieck (author of  “Puss in Boots”), from Baudelaire to Rilke, Buber and many ­others. If I say “it is a real cat” that sees me naked, this is in order to mark its unsubstitutable singularity. When it responds in its name (what­ever “respond” means, and that w ­ ill be our question), it d­ oesn’t do so as the exemplar of a species called “cat,” even less so of an “animal,” genus, or kingdom.3

Although what­ever idiosyncratic character his cat possesses remains hauntingly in the background of his text, she is nevertheless a singular presence and to highlight her gaze, Derrida reminds readers of his own nudity. Within the cross-­section of this structure—­the cat, his nudity, and the pre­ sen­ta­tion of language—he reflects upon humanity’s historic relationship

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to its animal companions, adding the prescient remark that “… no one can deny t­ oday this event—­that is, the unpre­ce­dented proportions of this subjection of the animal.”4 Of utmost importance for him is to establish ­whether or not the animal can respond. If humor is an acceptable form of response, does the animal have a sense of humor? Can it understand me? Notice ­Little Grey, a gendered she-­cat, suddenly becomes unspecific in the turmoil of t­ hese questions, dissolving into a more general pool: the thingness of an animal. Of additional interest is the ­human privilege endemic to my question: can “The Animal”—an umbrella intended to contain an im­mense and vari­ ous multiplicity—­reply to me on my own singular terms, in my language? If we suspend that privilege, confusion results. “The said question of the said animal in its entirety comes down to knowing not w ­ hether the animal speaks but ­whether one can know what respond means. And how to distinguish a response from a reaction.”5 At one time, I lived in an apartment gallery with this same cat where we hosted art exhibitions on a regular basis in our living room. An exhibiting artist and curator published a call to take other p­ eople’s object collections on loan for the duration of an art show.6 Hundreds of expired Starbucks gift cards, Pez dispensers, protest buttons, wine ­bottle bags, beer ­bottle tops, old champagne corks, rubber ducks, used Band-­Aids (!), journals—­ sentimental multiples in ranging sizes and conditions ­were subsequently arranged on one side of the apartment, occupying three hundred square feet with a brightly colored tableau that at once approximated outsider art in its aesthetic, while reminding the viewer of humanity’s singular capacity to acquire disposable goods. It was a cat’s playground. Although L ­ ittle Grey did occasionally do a ­running jump into the piecemeal landscape for my benefit, she consistently preferred to harass a volunteer who watched the gallery on the weekend. During his six-­hour tenure, L ­ ittle Grey would leap into the installation about two or three times—­particularly when visitors w ­ ere pres­ent—­sending all manner of objects flying; it would take another twenty minutes forYoung Joon to put every­thing back in its proper place, always ­under the adjacent (and dare I say smug) scrutiny of his feline adversary. Within the medium of that material installation, L ­ ittle Grey reacted to the two of us differently. The animal’s ability to respond answers a historical lineage of philosophical questioning intended to articulate the border between h ­ uman


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and nonhuman spheres. Responding is significant ­because it implies an interior judgment that would reflect a complex active and self-­possessed relationship to the world. Derrida draws on biblical history in his essay, pointing out that Adam and Eve’s defining moment arrives with the animal, or serpent. The phi­los­o­pher’s nudity similarly illustrates his capacity for shame, a capacity that would seem to differentiate him, as a h ­ uman, from the cat, as an animal. Within the biblical paradigm, animals are always dressed in fur, neither shameless nor shameful. Except for the snake, biblical animals rarely answer.7 Birds sing as symbols of God’s ­will and the animal brought to sacrifice gives its life symbolically to provide humankind access to God’s f­avor. Sacrificial killing reinforces a theoretical border between h ­ uman and nonhuman spheres; while God forbids killing absolutely, he takes exception with animals. “One could say, much too hastily, that giving a name would also mean sacrificing the living to God,”8 Derrida says, as though to suggest an effect of Adam’s nouns is to generalize a group who’s killing is sanctioned, a group unable to reply in the prescribed language of men. ­Little Grey resists restrictions I impose upon her territory; her power to disrupt ­those bounds is a game of sorts, an intervention by which she answers (or rejects) terms set upon her territory. How odd, she must have thought, that t­hese h ­ umans so painstakingly replace the objects they have accumulated in such bizarre and pristine order around the gallery apartment. Or watching me dress in the morning, she might play the anthropologist and puzzle over the strange effort with which I actively and ritualistically reinscribe the division between my body and its environment—­dressing, undressing, and redressing with sequences of obligatory fabrics in dif­fer­ent formations; so, she might think, this person evidently strug­gles ­under the effort of her conviction, differentiating her “I” from the other that is every­thing ­else. My friend’s grand­mother had a pet phrase: You say it so often, it must be true. Could this be the real source of Derrida’s shame? Not the original sin of Adam and Eve per se, but rather some derivative: his own elaborate preoccupation with categories, precepts, and hierarchies used to identify, enclose, and evaluate not only the self but also its landscape. A pro­cess by which conclusions are drawn that thereafter inspire subsequent exceptions and anomalies, as though in this exercise he (we) illustrate/s the delicate and shifting foundation of h ­ uman identity and owner­ship. This is inside,

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not outside. This is my land. This is art and this is not. This is my essay about a cat. Marcel Broodthaers recorded an Interview with a Cat in 1970.9 The conversations lasts four minutes and forty-­two seconds. In the first few minutes, the artist peppers the cat with questions about art in French. He begins by asking if the cat thinks a painting—­neither seen nor described—is a good example of conceptual art. The cat offers a small “miew” in answer. “Yet ­doesn’t this color call back to the kind of painting that was being done in the period of abstract art?” Broodthaers asks. And the animal answers with a series of similar but nevertheless distinct phrases, indicating what Broodthaers apparently suspected at the outset of the interview, namely that the cat w ­ ill respond, and to such an extent as to appear opinionated. The two carry on together from ­there: Broodthaers raises the specter of academicism, followed by questions about the art market—­ remarks the cat takes in evident stride as it responds with its own assortment of strange, unintelligible answers. The first part of the conversation concludes with Broodthaers’s suggestion that museums o ­ ught to be closed. To that, the cat does not answer. On the surface, the cat in Broodthaers’s interview is incorporated into a history of surrealist games. The animal becomes a foil for the art critic, the clown parodying conversations around the art world and its affiliated market. Cast in this role, the animal has nothing reasonable to add to that aesthetic discourse. Instead it mocks sophistic h ­ umans who presume their own lofty views, perhaps reflecting the artist’s contempt for art critical discourse on the one hand, while setting “Art” aside, as something unquantifiable. Despite that interpretation, Broodthaers and the cat share a call-­and-­ response dialogue; throughout the recording the cat remains enigmatic and embodied at once, per­sis­tent in the use of its self-­directed voice. The second part of the interview features the artist alternating between two mutually exclusive statements: “Ceci un pipe” and “Ceci n’est pas un pipe.” Between ­those phrases spoken in French and En­glish, the cat replies in similar though increasingly emphatic phrases. The cat’s voice—so strange and singular—­can only emphasize its source: an individual with agency and finite duration, one capable, even, of expressing a palpable mood, from an ambivalent monosyllabic remark to a louder progression of vari­ous phrases that would imply exacerbation, or excitement. As though in response to the artist’s vari­ous statements in vari­ous languages, the animal’s passion


Caroline Picard

grows hysterically, proving again and again its ability to respond, its ability to answer, its ability to resist being reduced to a concept. I think of a Pallas Cat video that went viral a few years ago. Though endangered, Pallas cats exist in Central Asia, living primarily around fourteen thousand feet above sea level. Unlike most cats, they have round pupils. They are intensely solitary, near threatened on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, having been discovered by accident in 1776 by a German naturalist, Peter Simon Pallas. Although he gave them a proper name, Otocolobus manu, the breed is generally addressed by his f­ amily name. In the July 2014 video, a Pallas cat discovers a secret camera hidden just outside of its den. It stares at the camera—­us—­hiding ever so slightly ­behind the rocky entrance of its home. I won­der what it sees—­a strange, perfectly circular, dark, reflective surface. The cat sits up suddenly, noticing perhaps that the camera’s reflection also changes. The animal approaches, quickly now, with direct authority, trotting just out of view, as though recognizing the camera’s limited peripheral vision. Then suddenly—­like the Ninja Cat—­Pallas’s face pops up, engulfing the frame of the camera, so close as to be out of focus, one green eye staring very seriously into the robotic, alien lens. It is looking at us. Perhaps its sees its own reflection, perhaps also the robotic contractions of the automatic camera adjusting to changes in light. Meanwhile, the cat’s blurred face obliterates the rest of the landscape, as it sniffs, and blinks intelligently. Its own pupils expand, mirroring the camera lens while acknowledging not only an awareness of being seen, but also returning the h ­ uman’s voy­eur­is­tic gaze. And with that, the cat drops down, again out of view. We hear the soft crunch of its feet walking away; birds in the background carry on. Imagine the crowd in Minneapolis. BETWEEN THE INDIVIDUAL AND ITS CONCEPT

One prob­lem with identifying that cat’s answer might stem from this flicker between a generic category, “Cat,” and the individual, mortal cat. The generic category offers stability and definition, whereas the individuals comply and resist categorization in unpredictable turns. Graham Harman’s essay “Badiou’s Horses and Baudelaire’s Cats” looks at two examples of animal repre­sen­ta­tion. First, he looks at Badiou’s discussion of ancient h ­ orse paintings in the Chauvet cave to explore the relationship between

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material individuals and the concepts with which they correspond. “What guides Badiou’s theory of art, like his theory of every­thing ­else,” Harman writes, “is an empirical diversity of individuals on the one hand and the intelligent paradigm of the idea on the other.”10 According to Badiou, each empirical ­horse points back to the fundamental archetype with which it participates, and the best works of art depicting h ­ orses would not only “contain the universal form” of the ­horse, but also “[teach] us something about ­horses as a biological type.”11 If Christ is God-­become-­man, then Badiou’s ­horses are idea-­become-­image, and all horse-­paintings participate in the same idea of ­horse­ness.12

As a counterpoint to this Platonic arrangement, Harman plays with translations of Baudelaire poems, especially “Cats” from Les Fleurs du mal: Dozing, all cats assume the svelte design of desert sphinxes sprawled in solitude, apparently transfixed by endless dreams; their teeming loins are rich in magic sparks, and golden specks like infinitesimal sand glisten in ­those enigmatic eyes.13

Although Baudelaire relies upon “cats” as a recognizable group (as Derrida notes14), Harman shows that Baudelaire’s poem only works ­because of its ability to slip between a universal concept, Cat, and the individual cat-­ subject of the poem. “If anything, Baudelaire is drawing on our familiarity with cats to enable him to leave certain t­hings unsaid.”15 Harman interrogates the specificity of the cat in question through a pro­cess of word substitutions; by replacing “cats” with “moose” for instance, and “svelte” for “thirsty,” he demonstrates that the poem’s power relies on its capacity to conjure a specific cat in the mind of a reader. This cat participates in a recognizable genre of cat-­ness while distinguishing itself from that category. The cat is general and specific, known and unknown, familiar but strange. “Art goes beyond empirical individuals by producing aesthetic individuals, not by teaching us about invariants that transcend all individuals.”16 Larger consequences unfold by this same logic, for not only do we recognize ­Little Grey flicker—­like Derrida’s cat—in and out of specificity, the world she bears flickers as well. The prospect of her autonomous consciousness surfaces in discrete moments—­the sprawl of her solitude,


Caroline Picard

for instance, or the enigmatic eyes Baudelaire is so fond of—­and only through ­these postures does one glimpse an inner life. Furthermore, if this cat exists somehow between the universal and singular, if she harbors a discrete and individuated world r­ unning parallel to mine or Bloom’s, so additional worlds begin to encroach upon one’s awareness—­those of other cats, yes, but then why not ­horses, parakeets, ­whales, jellyfish, termites, perhaps even computers, and more inert materials like drones, plastics, oil, and so on? An infinite number of worlds become theoretically pos­si­ble, each interlocking and entwined, worlds that remain autonomous, reciprocal though exclusive, with their own internal logics, agendas, and languages, many of which periodically intersect the ­human sphere. Broodthaers’s cat is and is not a readymade. Like a readymade it is strange, perhaps also like a readymade it is exploited for its capacity to elicit a strange feeling. To the h ­ uman in the recording, the cat is presented as an aesthetic tool. Yet the listener cannot dismiss the cat’s individual existence. Its unique voice disallows the cat to become, simply, a sign of its species, locating the cat’s body and w ­ ill as a resonant material presence that the listener can neither access completely nor deny. The cat’s double function— an artistic foil and an individual feline being—­reflects Broodthaers’s select phrases: This is a pipe. This is not a pipe. The pipe is and is not itself. The cat is and is not itself. The listener can never entirely apprehend ­either the pipe or the cat. Perhaps this further complicates our ability to listen and parse its replies. Indeed, to do so is an unnerving exercise. Months ago and shortly ­after moving to a new apartment, I woke up in the ­middle of the night when I thought I heard my husband snoring. It was pitch black. I had no idea what time it was and foggily recalled the surrounding apartment. The most articulated presence came as a wheezing sound, unusually high pitched and light. Like a baby crying in another part of the apartment building, except that it seemed so near at hand. Devin must be having a bad dream, I thought, and moved to wake him, stopping short when I realized he ­wasn’t making any noise. Rather, the sound came from elsewhere in the room. The hair on my arms ­rose. My heart began to hammer. It must be ­Little Grey, I thought. But she was so loud for a cat, and too h ­ uman sounding. I’d never heard her snore before and ­wasn’t sufficiently familiar with our surroundings to work out where exactly she slept. Yet it was her, and her voice emerged from the shared, half-­conscious night.

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In book 10 of the Odyssey, Odysseus visits the island of Circe and half of his men eat her food, fall u ­ nder her spell, and become swine. Having stayed b­ ehind with the ships, Odysseus escapes the same fate and is therefore called to the rescue; he gets a special root from Hermes (“moly”) that ­will make him immune to Circe’s enchantment. When she realizes her powers are ineffective—­“you must be spell-­proof,” she says—­they go to bed and Circe restores his men to ­human form thereafter. Although beastliness is traditionally associated with immoral domination, appetite, stupidity, or vio­lence, I won­der if the monstrous transformation in this section ­isn’t more complex. Odysseus’s ability to resist Circe’s spell (courtesy of the gods’ botanical science) enables a friendship solidified with sex: “sheathe your sword and let us go to bed, that we may make friends and learn to trust each other.” If an erotic encounter restores the crew’s humanity, perhaps the problematic category of animal refers primarily to the alien character of the men—as though they become strange when newly contextualized by Circe’s environment. The Circe section of Ulysses takes place in the red-­light district of Nighttown. ­Because the chapter is written in the form of a play, the reader activates the text like a spell, making the narrative come to life through her own mouth and mind (she is thus implicated as one becoming enchanted and enchanting) as it slips between dream and wakefulness, sexual provocation, politics, and a constellation of symbols. The section begins with Stephen’s perspective and then becomes Bloom’s via the memory of his dead ­father and ­mother, encounters with characters, and the fantasy of his estranged wife, Molly. Beyond the sexual charge permeating both iterations of Circe’s world, I suggest that the meta­ phorical “animals” the h ­ umans become is less a reflection of beastly-­ness in the h ­ uman subject and more the sign of a h ­ uman subject responding to an otherness so profound as to undermine the conviction of their own ­human identity. The pig-­ness of Odysseus’s men is rather superficial—­ “They w ­ ere like pigs—­head, hair, and all, and they grunted just as pigs do; but their senses w ­ ere the same as before, and they remembered 17 every­thing.” Yet t­ hese men thoroughly confound distinctions other­wise seen as hard and fast; an outside observer would be unable to differentiate pig from man, and thus might eat e­ ither unequivocally. Once Bloom steps outside of his habit and into the red-­light district, his relation to the world starts to shift. Bells and gongs have voices, (“Haltyaltyaltyall” and “Bang Bang Bla Bak Blud Bugg Bloo”). Time is similarly thrown out of whack


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as visions of the past overwhelm the pres­ent. The terror of the animal-­ concept, therefore, is its ability to trou­ble elaborate (and often theoretical) conventions humankind espouses as universal truths. I cannot describe ­Little Grey’s actions without doubt and qualification. She is always seeming. It is as though I cannot admit what seems quite clear in my experience, namely that certainly something is understood between us, between Bloom and his cat. In public, I qualify our cat. Privately, I believe her. The world of our h ­ ouse is made up of three members: a cat, a man, and myself. Although we share a predominantly a ­human interior, or­ga­nized in compliance with an exterior anthro-­social architecture, the animal is always accounted for, accommodated, and observed. Relative to our ­human similarities, she represents that frontier of a still negotiable other-­ness. Still, t­ here is a limit to what we offer our feline roommate. She has ­little to say about what she eats, where she lives, and even—as an indoor cat—­where she can go. ­These conditions further limit my ability to access who she is, for while ­there are times in the day when I experience something of ­Little Grey’s interiority, she is for the most part a remote presence. You ­will hear my ­mother say that I am cooking for the cats. This scandalizes my m ­ other who is Levinasian without knowing it, given that my cats do not cook for me, but that’s not correct. This unequal division occurs only when I keep them in an exclusively ­human home, to which they adapt out of politeness. As soon as they have a home of their own, a piece of earth and of world, they cook for me. Then it’s my turn to adapt to their cooking of birds and ­little rodents.18

Broodthaers’s interview engages in a call and response; the meaning he attempts to ascribe through French and En­glish is irrelevant in a way, for what he does instead is open the possibility of language to incorporate the illogic of other creatures. What­ever ­else we may say, the cat answers, differently and consistently. Broodthaers also answers the cat. A conversation develops that both constituents contribute to, shape and form collaboratively. In 2007, Art Orienté object (AOo), the French collaborative group comprised of Marion Laval-­Jeantet and Benoît Mangin, began a series of body modification experiments intended to communicate with animals outside of language. “Basically the proj­ect was to artistically adapt Jacob von Uexküll’s Umwelt theory, which argues that the meaning of an

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environment differs from one animal to another in relation to its sensorial system.”19 Instead of trying to teach an animal ­human language, AOo tried to adapt and incorporate animal expressions. This notion was originally inspired in 1993 by a studio cat, whom Laval-­Jeantet describes as a magnificent, self-­absorbed presence. “Hadji was like a stallion, who spent several hours each day pacing up and down our studio, like a wild beast in a cage, following a path defined by himself. We then made a kind of game, in which we would add an obstacle to each of his circular trajectories.”20 They documented the cat negotiating its changing landscape in a video. “The changes w ­ ere imperceptible and the viewer, who could not see what we ­were ­doing in the video, ­didn’t realize that each of the cat’s episodic hesitations resulted in him being forced to change his itinerary. So, it is the Umwelt of the cat revealed the Umwelt of the artist.”21 This first experiment led to o ­ thers, during which AOo tried to produce works that modified their perception of cats. Over the years, we made many ethological experiments with [cats], but it seemed that we ­were stuck in the same place in their hierarchy. That’s when the idea occurred to me to become digitigrade. A kind of fantasy where I would be able to jump onto the t­ able in a single leap with paws that w ­ ere too long.  … I drew the “cat shoes,” which the prosthetist made. As soon as I put them on and got used to this strange way of walking, the cats came up to me, sniffed and jumped on me, playing with me in the same way as they played between themselves.

For the resulting 2007 work, Felinanthropy, the artists created prosthetic legs that allowed the ­human to walk about on all fours, and thus share the physical stature of a cat. “The artist object [prosthetics] worked, it had moved my role in [to] the feline, domestic hierarchy.”22 By changing her status as a biped, Laval-­Jeantet transformed her relationship to cats, who, according to the artist, no longer recognized her explic­itly as h ­ uman, but rather as some in-­between creature that shared both ­human and cat qualities. More recently, Laval-­Jeantet built up an immunity to ­horse plasma over the course of a year, and in 2012, enacted a temporary ­horse plasma transplant for a live audience; this they called May the Horse Live in Me. Prosthetics ­were another major component to this per­for­mance as well; at the end of the transfusion, Laval-­Jeantet put on a pair of stilts made to look and move like a ­horse’s hind legs, and walked around the per­for­mance space


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with a living ­horse. ­These curious attempts to access nonhuman experience only serve to highlight the strange and perfect inaccessibility of nonhuman realms, at once problematizing our traditional engagement with nature as a picturesque field, and further entrenching humankind within it. The stilts w ­ ere mostly ­there to allow me a dif­fer­ent way of communicating with the h ­ orse who was pres­ent during the per­for­mance. I was a l­ittle afraid of ­horses, actually. And it seems like ­horses’ attitudes change completely when your eyes are at the same height as theirs. With the stilts, my eyes ­were the same height as his, and I could see that the h ­ orse was calmer. It was also a way for me to be aware of the reversal of roles between me and the animal. And naturally, it was a way to distract myself from the pos­si­ble anxiety that might arise ­because of the infusion. B ­ ecause I was on stilts, I could only think of the goal: to join with the animal, and not of the psychological prob­lems that might come out during the per­for­mance. Experiments with prosthetics always affect your fears about your body, and in the per­for­mance it was necessary that I have a strong sense of a double transformation, ­mental and biological.23

In a 2014 video from the Walker Art Center cat fancy program, a black cat hangs out of an apartment win­dow, barking. It sounds like a toy dog, its voice high and sharp like a terrier. In the midst of a long succession of barks, the cat turns to see the camera. It appears to change its mind and the bark it is in the ­middle of pronouncing ends in a meow. ­Every subsequent sound it makes is a meowing. The video is called “Cat gets caught barking by ­human and resumes meowing.” Does that cat’s reaction reflect some kind of shame or self-­consciousness? FLASHING TEETH

So much of humanity’s self-­definition comes from language. The earliest form of writing is used to mark humankind’s advancement as the definitive turn at which h ­ umans began to differentiate itself as a species. Nonhumans are automatically excluded from that history not only ­because their respective abilities exclude them from making h ­ uman language, but also ­because their worldviews, or Umwelts, do not necessarily cohere to ­human reason. This is not to say that other species do not communicate or possess some consciousness of their own, but that their modes of communication are so ill fitted to the structure of h ­ uman discourse as to appear unreasonable and chaotic when compared.

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As a landmark of modernity, Ulysses’s narrative stretches the capacity of language to include the possibility of realities explic­itly excluded by ­human language. The cat speaks without apparent meaning. Contextualized, however, the gibberish of the cat becomes meaningful, pointing at something just out of reach. Broodthaers accomplishes a similar kind of pointing, juxtaposing the language of ­human art with the language of his cat. What is similarly unsettling is the way Broodthaers’s cat seems likewise meaningful and self-­directed, even if we cannot relate to (or anticipate) its intentions; ­there is an echo of kinship in their encounter. AOo’s sculptural props become souvenirs of their hybrid dalliance while offering a literal repre­sen­ta­tion of material and identity exchange. A kind of theoretical rebellion occurs—­one in which the ­human, like any and all other life forms, is negotiating an unfixed, “mesh” of interdependent species, materials, and genomes. Bloom encounters the cat’s autonomy of perception, a perception in which he is but a subject, becoming more aware of himself and unsettled in that awareness. By supplying the cat with its own specter of language, by providing room for its textual response, Joyce cracks the door on a world Bloom ­will never access. We feel its presence and integrity, while being unable to enter and know it first hand—­like noticing ­water in the bottom of a boat in dream. Leaks begin to spring up all over the place, as the boat’s integrity is called further into question. We feel the presence of the ocean beneath our feet, feel its teeming impossibility against our own tenuous scaffold of h ­ uman reason. By admitting one cat, we must acknowledge that throng of many. We must acknowledge the strange porous bounds of our own selves. Bloom—­ the textual ­human—­faces the limit of his anthropocentric perspective, while wondering ­after the cat’s thoughts. Despite the inaccessibility of nonhuman worlds, the art object (the prosthetic limbs of a cat, the readymade, or fiction of Ulysses) create a theoretical bridge for awareness that extends outside of the rational ­human view, disrupting a hierarchical order, as we catch a glimpse of the more fluid ecological tapestry in which humanity is integrated. Strangers applaud. You see them smiling in the dark. The flash of their teeth in light— laughing.


Caroline Picard NOTES

1. ​“More than forty-­eight thousand ­people have subscribed to Maru’s YouTube channel and more than forty-­six million views have been generated by cat lovers and Maru’s fans from all over the world.” Amy Bajalis, “Interview with Maru the Cat,” Love Meow, accessed January 21, 2015, http://­​ /interview-­with-­maru-­the-­cat/#JOz5YiAL8q4zbRIh.99. 2. ​James Joyce, Ulysses (New York: Vintage Books, 1961), 55. 3. ​Jacques Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am, trans. David ­Wills (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008), 9. 4. ​Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am, 25. 5. ​Derrida, 8. 6. ​Shannon Stratton, Restless: A Visual Essay (Chicago: Green Lantern Press, 2008). 7. ​­There is one other instance in Numbers 22:28; a Donkey replies to Balaam when struck with a stick. 8. ​Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am, 42. 9. ​Marcel Broodthaers, “Interview with a Cat,” YouTube, accessed September 5, 2017, https://­ 10. ​Graham Harman, “Badiou’s Horses and Baudelaire’s Cats,” in Ghost Nature, ed. Caroline Picard (Chicago: Green Lantern, 2014), 38. 11. ​Harman, “Badiou’s Horses and Baudelaire’s Cats,” 38. 12. ​Harman, 38. 13. ​Charles Baudelaire, Les Fleures du mal, trans. R. Howard (Boston: Godine, 1982). Quoted by Harman, “Badiou’s Horses and Baudelaire’s Cats,” 39. 14. ​“No, no, my cat … does not appear h ­ ere to represent, like an ambassador, the im­mense symbolic responsibility with which our culture has always charged the feline race … from Baudelaire to Rilke, Buber and many o ­ thers.” Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am, 9. 15. ​Harman, “Badiou’s Horses and Baudelaire’s Cats,” 43. 16. ​Harman, 43. 17. ​Homer, The Odyssey, trans. Samuel Butler (London: Longmans, Greens, 1900), 130. 18. ​Hélène Cixous and Peggy Kamuf, “The Keys To: Jacques Derrida as Proteus Unbound,” Discourse, Special Issue: “Who?” or “What?”—­Jacques Derrida 3, no. 1/2 (2008): 94. 19. ​Marion Laval-­Jeantet, “Self-­Animality,” Plastik: Art and Science, accessed January 6, 2014, http://­art-­science.univ-­

The Strangers among Us 317 20. ​Laval-­Jeantet, “Self-­Animality.” 21. ​Laval-­Jeantet. 22. ​Laval-­Jeantet. 23. ​Marion Laval-­Jeantet, “Adapting the Umwelt: Art Orienté objet,” Bad at Sports, accessed August  22, 2016, http://­b​ -­the​ -­umwelt-­art-­oriente-­objet/. BIBLIOGRAPHY

Bajalis, Amy. “Interview with Maru the Cat.” Love Meow. Accessed January 21, 2015. http://­­with-­maru​-­the​-­cat​/#JOz​ 5YiAL8q4zbRIh.99. Broodthaers, Marcel. “Interview with a Cat.” YouTube. Accessed September 5, 2017. https://­ Cixous, Hélène, and Peggy Kamuf. “The Keys to: Jacques Derrida as Proteus Unbound.” Discourse, Special Issue: “Who?” or “What?”—­Jacques Derrida 30, no. 1​/2 (2008): 71–122. Derrida, Jacques. The Animal That Therefore I Am. Translated by David ­Wills. New York: Fordham University Press, 2008. Harman, Graham. “Badiou’s Horses and Baudelaire’s Cats.” In Ghost Nature, edited by Caroline Picard, 33–43. Chicago: Green Lantern, 2014. Homer. The Odyssey. Translated by Samuel Butler. London: Longmans, Greens, 1900. Joyce, James. Ulysses. New York: Vintage Books, 1961. Laval-­Jeantet, Marion. “Adapting the Umwelt: Art Orienté Objet.” Bad at Sports. Accessed August  22, 2016. http://­b​-­the​ -­umwelt-­art-­oriente-­objet/. Laval-­Jeantet, Marion. “Self-­Animality.” Plastik: Art and Science. Accessed January 6, 2014. http://­art-­science.univ-­ Stratton, Shannon. Restless: A Visual Essay. Chicago: Green Lantern, 2008.