Saturday, April 6, 2013

4.X. The Thermodynamics of Ethico-Political Architecture

This essay was originally written as my reflection of Bernard Tschumi's Architecture and Disjunction (you will notice the first paragraph or so is the same). I in fact wrote this one beforehand, and subsequently decided to delete most of the essay and rework it more suitable for a blog post. But that said, as my current writings build off of certain concepts discussed in this essay, I have decided to post it here. It is unfinished, yet conclusive in attempting to construct a theoretical foundation for ethico-political architecture.

In re-reading Architecture and Disjunction, a collection of essays by Bernard Tschumi written between 1975-1991, published in 1996, and inaugurated as seminal text for architecture students around who-knows-when, what initially struck me was its vey explicitness of the political motivation behind Tschumi's writing and investigation. Coming out of France '68, Tschumi opens his discourse by trying to locate the political operativity of architecture, characteristic of the late avant-garde that he acts as one of the closing figures to. His thought navigates starts by rejecting the neoliberal notion that architecture is merely a representative instrument, and from this point seeks to find the tools with which architecture can subvert this ideology and act as a "catalyst for change." His goal in this is to find a way that architecture can be used for the creation of society itself, as opposed to represent transcendental hegemonic ideals of it. He locates this agency starting from a conclusion that "architectural space per se (space before its use) [is] politically neutral" and thenceforth outlines two primary strategies: The first he calles "exemplary actions" and uses "guerrilla building" as an example: architecture that rejects the value of form in order to signify the significance of use in a "rhetorical act"that "reveals that the capitalist organization of space destroys all collective space" and acts "not merely [as] the realization of an object built for itself, but also the revelation through building of realities and contradictions of society" (p11). He curiously calls this strategy "not specifically architectural but rely[ing] heavily on an understanding of urban structures. It also suggested the polarization of conflicts so as to destroy the most reactionary norms and values of our society" (p10). A contemporary example of this would clearly be the encampments of the 201X revolutions. The second strategy, which he calls "counterdesign" is "more architectural insofar as it used the architect's means of expression (plans, perspectives, collages, etc.) in order to denounce the evil effects of planning practices imposed by conservative city boards and governments." Employing Critchley's figure of the architect as an aesthetic sublimator, the architect would use the architectural mediums to voice a pure critique and emphasize the impossibility of understanding space in its experience. Examples of this range from Archizoom's No-Stop City to Tschumi's own graphic narratives in the Manhattan Transcripts, as well as many of the winners to the most recent iteration of the Think-Space programme (1, 2, 3). Tschumi immediately follows the explanation of counterdesign with a critique of its potential for "recuperation", or cooptation by the capitalist hegemony it is trying to combat. I would like to disagree with the sufficiency of this critique, claiming that the problem is not that the hegemony can coopt the activity, but the activity doesn't ever take place: by "leading to [the] active rejection of such planning processes" (p11) it is deferred. Rejected by who? How? Where? When?

What is immediately peculiar even this early into the book, and perhaps revealing, is that for Tschumi, his declaration that exemplary actions are "not architecture" provides a sufficient enough critique to dismiss its potential for political action (at least within the 'role' of the architect), though he concludes that "[n]one of these environmental tactics leads directly to a new social structure" and continuing with "[a]rchitecture and its spaces do not change society", merely relegating its political potential to "one day influence society" (p15), even though contemporary scientific research into neuroplasticity has begun to prove otherwise (4). This is echoed later on, when he states that the question asked is about the "nature of architecture rather in the making of architecture" (p38). Describing the general introspective turn of the late avant-garde, Tschumi writes "the search for autonomy inevitably turned back toward architecture itself, as no other context would readily provide for it" (p35-36). My question, at this point in the critique, is, how can architecture not have a context other than itself? What made the architects of this historical movement believe this? His immediate justification is the historical contingency of the architect and its contemporary "non-necessity." This is further added to by referencing the idealized notion of the 'Architect' and what architecture is not: "[u]nless we search for an escape from architecture into the general organization of building processes, the paradox persists" (p47). Even though criticizing it early on, Tschumi has no qualms identifying with the Hegelian definition of architecture (and therefore the architect) as "supplemental" - i.e. everything that is not necessary. But within this framework, and deepening his interpretation of what the "not necessary" means, wouldn't the specific "organization of building processes" be "not necessary" as well? The key element to whatever is "not necessary" is that despite the fact of its arbitrariness, it exists. If the design of space is contingent, and therefore subject to architecture, why is the building process not? It is, and this conclusion Tschumi makes is exemplary of accepting the capitalist division of labor he claims to be fighting against. To the degree that architects over the past 100 years have been focused on innovating forms of architectural representation, it is highly suspicious that architecture has given little focus to the innovating the representation of architectural form. Perhaps this can be evidenced in contemporary practice with the 'digital turn' and building integrated modeling, but even this form of innovation does not address the social relations it is based on.

In proper post-modern fashion (defined as the explicit rejection of modernist ideologies and its project), Tschumi asks "Does architecture, in its long-established isolation, contain more revolutionary power than its numerous transfers into the objective realities of the building industry and social housing?" (p46). Was this formulated out of mere frustration in Modernism's perceived failure? Echoing Critchley's ethical foundation of 'disappointment', Tschumi claims "Defined by its questioning, architecture is always the expression of a lack, a shortcoming, a noncompletion. It always misses something, either reality of concept" (p48). Though my question still remains, it can be deepend: if failure is inherent to architecture, why give up on an approach to architecture that has failed? It is perhaps a consequence that can be linked to Critchley's ethical argument, as well as Brott's architectural subjectivity, and my overall trouble with them both: when we sublimate, yes it releases creative energies and existential agency, alleviating the 'weight' put on by the hegemony, but does not address the cause of the original oppression, or in Critchley's terms, does not make the demand any less demanding, nor does it question whether what is being demanded of us should be. If anything, and evidenced by the contemporary state of architectural practice and the conditions of its workers, by sublimating and suppressing the angst, it only makes the demander demand more. And this makes logical sense: if the 'bad' things can be felt less painfully without challenging the existence of the objects that inflict the pain itself, and further the potentiality for the inflictor to inflict, sublimation merely becomes an instrument of oppression.

This critique is, importantly, merely a theoretical development of the consequences engendered by the supposed and assumed social identity. It should come as no surprise, and particularly not to the authors whom I am critiquing. In locating architecture itself in the transgression of space, Tschumi writes: "Limits remain, for transgression does not mean the methodical destruction of any code or rule that concerns space or architecture. On the contrary, it introduces new articulations between inside and outside, between concept and experience" (p78). It is therefore, just to be clear, not Tschumi's intention to say anything otherwise; it is not as if what I am saying is what he tried to say and failed to do so, but simply and reflectively puts into question the operative significance of the terms upon which I am critiquing, mainly, the agential relation between the human and their heteronomic "code". Tschumi is clear regarding the complexity of this question when he essentially lays out the foundation of his discourse by declaring "(a) that there is no cause-and-effect relationship between the concept of space and the experience of space, or between buildings and their uses, or space and the movement of bodies within it, and (b) that the meeting of these [interdependent yet] mutually exclusive terms could be intensely pleasurable or, indeed, so violent that it could dislocate the most conservative elements of society" (p16). My much larger question, which can hopefully use Tschumi's theory as a case-study, is, why give up on the revolution? A starting point for exploring this massive subject is: What is the difference between revolution as "professional forces trying to arrive at new social and urban structures" (p10) and transgression as "new articulations between inside and outside, between concept and experience"?

This argument brings us very close to the discourse of emergence and the event, questioning the metaphysical potentiality of new-ness itself, which I would like to try and avoid. But let us proceed by investigating the notion of transgression more closely and how it relates to revolution. To do this we can compare its relation to another similar concept's relation to the same term: subversion. Transgression effectively changes things. It makes what was bad now not, or at least differently, to the result of less pain. Transgression can be thought of as a form of non-violent micro-revolution. Subversion, on the other hand, does not seek to change things with its own act of subversion. Subversive activity is meant to act as a mirror that makes the contingency (and horror) of things brutally transparent. Subversion incites anger, and as such can be thought of as a preparation for revolution. Transgression, conversely, produces jouissance, and as such sedates the revolutionary spirit. I use the word sedate here quite specifically, intending to imply the effect of a drug; transgression is essentially heterotopic, which means that as soon as a subject leaves the boundary of the transgressive heterotopia, the oppressive hegemonic violence is placed back on their shoulders, with post-transgression subject being less-familiar with carrying (the anxiety caused by) this burden, inducing its consequences to greater effect. Revolution is the activity of reducing the amount of weight we are forced to burden. This is not to say revolution is idealistically transcendental or utopian. It is not necessarily the removal of all weight, but it is its literally alleviating, taking some of the weight off.

To continue with the analogy of weight might prove fruitful. Matter has four forms: solid, liquid, gas, and plasma. Weight can only be felt in solid. Weight can crush. Liquids saturate and can drown. Gas pressurizes and implodes. Plasma burns and suffocates. One resists weight, swims in liquid, breathes gas, and avoids plasma. Let's call solid stuff, liquid representation, gas ideology, and plasma truth.


Sublimation, interestingly, is a particular type of phase change, from solid to gas. But in order to integrate and proceed this thermodynamic understanding of political activity into the discourse I have already established, Critchley's aesthetic sublimation is, in the etymological sense of the term, an upward phase change, and it is this definition of sublimation as upward phase change that will be used in the following argument. It is therefore pertinent to ask, what happens when sublimation occurs? According to the thermodynamic model of enthalpy, the sublimation of matter increases the system's embodied energy. Embodied energy can be defined for our intents as purposes, following the first law of thermodynamics, as "[1] the internal energy, which is the energy required to create a system, and [2] the amount of energy required to make room for it by displacing its environment and establishing its volume and pressure" (5). Before continuing onto the second law of thermodynamics, it must be said that the concept of entropy has been employed by a variety of disciplines, scientific and not, but I would like to try and maintain, at least this point in time, a discourse based on energy, as opposed to statistical mechanics (which is where the typical understanding of entropy as 'a system's natural progression towards chaos' comes from). By doing this, I am axiomatically declaring that the decrease of entropy is what leads to mechanical disorder, and not vice versa. That is not to say that the increase of disorder does not lead to a decrease in entropy, but for the sake of our ethical moment and political aspirations, and in response to contrary postmodern views, energy is the operative terrain.


But when approaching entropy through the second law of thermodynamics, we are confronted with an 'inevitable' relation between an isolated system and its equilibrium, neither of which are the case of nor applicable to our environmental moment. The fundamental difference between equilibrium thermodynamics and non-equilibrium thermodynamics is not so much the conception of, but the acceptance of irreversible processes. The difference between reversible and irreversible process have to do with the system's interior/exterior relation: reversible processes which maintain equilibrium by employing the first law of thermodynamics and changing only that which is internal to the system itself, whereas irreversible processes are relational processes that perform work on its surroundings, either adding or taking away energy via entropy production or energy dissipation (7), and therefore unsettling the supposed equilibrium of both. Going back to the original definition of entropy, either the energy internal to a system or its boundaries are changed. So the questions can then be asked: (a) how do systems interact, (b) what makes their relation irreversible and (c) what are the consequences (of that irreversibility)? Thermodynamically speaking, irreversible relational processes are a result of mediation or mutation (8). The primary difference between these two forms of interaction are where the interaction takes place. In mediation, interaction does not take place within the systems themselves, but instead outside in a non-space where the information being transmitted can be not only lost or modified, but not necessarily received. Mutation on the other hand uses the boundary of the systems themselves as the mediation device, pushing up against each other in a violent confrontation of who-takes-what.


As you can see, the definition of the systems' borders change depending on the type of heteronomous relation the system enters. I have yet to answer question (b) or (c) from above; what makes these relations irreversible and what are its consequences? It seems to me that the status of 'irreversibility' of these processes may be worth challenging. Let me explain: if the loss or gain of energy is considered irreversible, as whenever energy is lost or gained it is effectively changed, what irreversibility implies is that it is not the entropic state the system was at before the exchange that is effectively irreversible, but the specific material makeup of the system that gave it that state. In this reading, could it be that the problem with thermodynamics is not its materialism, but that it is not sufficiently materialist? By saying this I am only further emphasizing the second law of thermodynamics, the law of entropy. What this means is, if a system ideally works to (wants to) progress towards a state of equilibrium, why does it matter (no pun intended) what form the energy comes or goes in, as long as the coming or going moves the system closer to its equilibrium? The problem with a materialist view on this point is the belief that the specific quantity of energy given or taken can be known, which beyond a materialism would be a reductionist viewpoint closer to scientism than anything else.

Therefore, if the irreversibility is not necessarily a problem, we are merely left with a consequential situation of dis-equilibrium. Let me make this clear: when I speak of equilibrium, I do not mean to evoke an idyllic picture of the garden of eden, or any notion of pre/post-fall. When I use the term equilibrium and non-equilibrium thermodynamics, I neither wish to refute the second law of thermodynamics: I merely mean to invoke equilibrium as the orientation of the "spontaneous evolution" and "preferred direction of progress" developed in the second law of thermodynamics. Additionally, by raising these even more laden terms, I do not claim to (be able to) proscribe an identifiable, representable, point towards which progress and evolution heads towards; for a plethora of reasons, equilibrium cannot be described in any other way than on its own terms. Lastly, "we" is not everyone - "we" is the "we" of each singular identity. All I wish to do is claim that 'progress' is our political nature, or, said differently, we desire ethical good.

If thermodynamic equilibrium, political progress and ethical good is the 'thing' which we motivate ourselves to. But when we reflect this back on architectural agency and attempt to situate this framework within the specific historical context previously analyzed, we come across certain fallacies. Sublimation, that which increases the embodied energy, must either effect an increase of internal system energy, the society within which the experience takes place, or increase the territory of said system / society. This is sensually paradoxical: if solid matter is liquified, it disperses beneath us, or if vaporized, "melts into air". It "intensifies" (Nealon, 2008). When sublimated, matter has an easier time expanding its bounds: it is able to infiltrate into every imperfection in the solid surface, as in concrete, cracking it from within. Much like the urbanism of cities like Los Angeles, this is not a problem if there is plenty empty space to expand into, and even in certain contexts where space is a problem, such as Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Valparaíso, Chile or La Paz, Bolivia, techniques are invented to conquer the geological obstruction. But there is a problem, because not only is space finite, but through the processes of global warming, we are not the only ones who are producing entropy in our global system, further accelerating the production of consequences. The conclusions to make from this, in our contemporary global moment, could be: the less we can sense, the more energy, less entropy, and less equilibrium there is.

The question is, as it always has been, what is to be done? Ethically, the answer is simply to move our societal system towards equilibrium. I believe I have already put forth the argument that we should not dedicate our work towards sublimation. Tschumi's operative theory of transgression is peculiar to situate in this expanded context, as it's ethical operativity is precarious and must be questioned. To quote again: "(a) that there is no cause-and-effect relationship between the concept of space and the experience of space, or between buildings and their uses, or space and the movement of bodies within it, and (b) that the meeting of these [interdependent yet] mutually exclusive terms could be intensely pleasurable or, indeed, so violent that it could dislocate the most conservative elements of society" (p16). Transgression uses the material state of liquid: transgression depends on pre-existing representational identities, even if what they represent is non-causality or non-identity. This follows Roland Barthes' semiology of myth, where the transgressive act would effectively create a third-ord semiological system, or, an "artificial myth". When the inherent disjunction within the representational scheme is either united or revealed in its raw contingency (or whatever other form of "meeting" can be imagined), the liquid material of representation is sublimated, reified into ideology; by their very explicit representation, despite their contingency, they are made real.

Let us turn to another form of sublimation, one that Jeremy Till acutely locates in the architectural concept of the tectonic (9), and is what Barthes calls processes of the poetic (10). "[P]oetry ... attempts to regain an infra-signification, a pre-semiological state of language; in short, it tries to transform the sign back into meaning: its ideal, ultimately, would be to reach not the meaning of words, but the meaning of things themselves"(Barthes, p133). Curiously and conveniently, this form of sublimation corresponds to the technical scientific term of sublimation, the phase change from solid to gas. But the problem with vaulting solid weight to the level of gaseous ideology is that, and this is something Tschumi pointed out in his explanation of the disjunctive role of architecture as the conceptualization and experience of space, stuff doesn't "say" anything. Therefore when stuff itself in a pre-signified state is made to speak, it is 'personified', or phrased differently, its 'thingness' is instrumentalized as a ventriloquist's puppet, eerily reminiscent of McLuhan's "the medium is the message". 

Before we move on, a brief comment on an infamous saying that could provide some guidance and further questions for the following discussion. "All that is solid melts into air" - I would argue this statement should not be seen as inevitable, but I do believe it is fair to say that this is the internal logic of the capitalist system in its reified ideology. If it is a logic, it is for a reason. It is then important to ask ourselves, why does the capitalist system want to sublimate things? What is it about solidity that is threatening? Before we delve into a positivist ethics, let's look at what is left standing in our way, or what other types of political activity risk being compromised by internal contradictory laws.

Solid -> Gas (Sublimation) = Poetry
Liquid -> Gas (Vaporization) = Transgression
Solid -> Liquid (Melting) = Signification

Signification is, I hope, rather self explanatory, and arguably impossible (or at least impotent) today. Signification is to ignore the disjunction of postmodern times, the contingency of all value and meaning. This operation can use post-modern and contemporary architectural formalism as a prime reference, and refers to what Barthes calls "ultra-signification" (Barthes, p133). It is to say "this means that" or "this will do that". It is to put blind faith in the myth of a universally metaphysical causal logic; blind only for the reason that one must be blind to not notice that cause -/> effect.

One last thing before we begin: it is clear that up until this point I have ignored plasma as a state of matter. Without going into psychoanalytic theory too much, we can note the uncanny similarities between the consequences of exposure to plasma and confrontation with the Lacanian Real. While the will to make our individual beliefs transcendental and absolute truths may serve as the 'essential' foundation behind our ethical actions, much like notions of revolution itself, in order to carry this through would be not only to negate the basic principle of contingency that ethico-political actions are based on, but would simply be Fascist.

To begin, let's do a bit of a summary as to where we are at this point in the essay, as well as restate the intention with which this essay is being written. We are well along on the path to discovering the political and ethical (im)possibility of architecture, which started with an analysis of Bernard Tschumi's late avant-garde theory of architecture as a political agent. By revealing internal contradictions and fallacies within his argument, we were led away from architecture in particular to ethics and politics in particular, taking inspiration from Simon Critchley's theory of heteronomous and existential weight, to which architecture, as an inherently heteronomous element, forms an integral part of. Combining the analogy of weight with Jeremy Till's notion of aesthetic sublimation, to which Tschumi's transgression acts in, led to the introduction of thermodynamics as framework which can allow us to better grasp the intentions and consequences of our actions. Using a non-equilibrium conception of thermodynamic systems, we have worked through and identified three types of thermodynamic agency in the form of phase changes that have been architecturally embodied in various historical epochs as ethico-political, but in fact work contrary to these beliefs and only advance the production of what they were claiming to act against. We are now finally free to begin our quest towards discovering what constitutes the metaphysics of ethical and political action.

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