Tuesday, May 7, 2013

9. Ian Bogost - Alien Phenomenology

Alien Phenomenology is more of a re-articulation of the arguments for and developments of Object Oriented Ontology (OOO) than a book that seeks to introduce a radical new theory. Since the movement's official foundation in 2010 with a series of conferences organized by Bogost at Georgia Tech, published in 2012, this book puts for the declaration 'this is where we are' rather than 'this is what we are.' The reasons for which I have endeavored into such a book is not so much as to discover new concepts or insights, which are developed in more detail elsewhere, but to return my gaze towards OOO for its metaphysical deployment of metaphor as a way to draw a cartography of the contemporary architectural discipline. In this essay I will seek to investigate the idea of metaphor as it relates to the architectural design of the late avant-garde, and through its analysis reflexively determine a more operative definition for architecture as a political dispositif for the new.

Metaphor is a linguistic figure of speech, a type of rhetoric that deals with the formation of a new understanding through the chemical-like synthesis of its two anteriors. Metaphor is political in the Rancierian sense that the political act represents that which was not before that act of representation (1). Metaphor is furthermore asymmetrical: as in bacterial symbiotic sex (2), one concept is consumed by the other to produce yet another. To use Graham Harman's example from Guerrilla Metaphysics (3), when we say man is a wolf, 'man' and 'wolf' are not equal in the metaphor and its resulting new concept, assuming that the metaphor is successful, is more akin to an augmentation of the man concept than the wolf concept. This rings oddly close to Deleuzean becoming, where the wolf-becomes-man, or the man-becomes-wolf, but with a key ontological difference:
"The familiar refrain of "becoming-whatever" (it doesn't matter what!) suggests comfort and compatibility in relations between units, thanks to the creative negotiations things make with each other. By contrast, alien phenomenology assumes the opposite : incompatibility ... remind[ing] us that no matter how fluidly a system may operate, its members nevertheless remain utterly isolated, mutual aliens." (Bogost, Alien Phenomenology, p40)
The basic tenet of OOO is that everything is essentially unknowable. That is not to say that we cannot know anything, but it is to say that we can only know the sensual qualities of each thing that we know, and that those things exist much more deeply than just in those ways that we know them. Metaphor  reveals not only the finitude of our knowledge, but its latent potentials. It is therefore through metaphysical operations such as metaphor that we indirectly expand our knowledge of the very things that make up the operation. But specifically in Bogost's discourse, metaphor is induced primarily as a means to communicate not a thing, but the experience of a thing: for example, how bats experience space. He argues that even though we may be able to describe how bats use their senses to perceive space, that is not the same as understanding the bat's experience of space. Bogost identifies metaphor as having the capacity to communicate experience through its production of new understandings, such as: a bat's experience of space is like swimming in a black hole. This metaphor, ignoring its success or not, does not intend to communicate exactly what the experience of space is like for a bat, but instead creates a different form of understanding that may be closer to the experience we are trying to understand as opposed to if we were to create a aesthetic image of our humanized interpretation of echolocation.

Echolocation, source

Politically, we could declare that architecture aims to be expressed, represented, experienced, regardless of whatever architecture may be. This political intention is clearly exemplified by Aldo Rossi's employment of archetypical geometries as a generator of contemporary history, Peter Eisenman's employment of architectonic elements as the disjunction to daily life, and John Hejduk's employment of urban symbols as the medium for social narratives. Each of these architects sought to clearly represent architecture through a process of critical abstraction in the etymological sense of definitively separating and deciding what is crucial from what isn’t. If we call the work of these architects metaphorical (in the metaphysical sense of the term), we can begin to identify their metaphysical tectonics. My question in, in the relation between geometry and history, between building and daily life, between symbols and narratives, where does architecture fit? Let us look at the algebraic possibilities: architecture can occupy either the primary, secondary, or product term. a + b = C | a + C = b | C + a = b. Referencing Bernard Tschumi's Hegelian (/Faustian?) bargain that architecture is a supplement (4), we can deduce that architecture in the work of the late avant-garde, exemplified by these three architects, is a component of the metaphor of inhabiting space to produce something else. For example: in House VI, Eisenman manipulated architectonic elements within the architectural design process as a means to reveal the contingency of the Frank's daily life; in the Masque projects, Hejduk situated urban symbols within the architectural process of realization to effect a social narrative; in La Nuova Piazza, Rossi used geometric forms within the architectural process of institutionalization to produce a feeling of contemporary history. Formally speaking, none of these results - the revelation of contingency, the effect of sociality, or the institution of contemporary history - would have occurred without architecture: they are dependant on architecture.

It is perhaps suitable at this point to recall that concurrent to the development of the late avant-garde, claims of an 'architectural knowledge' were made, an autonomous form of knowledge that was particular and essential to the architectural discipline. Architects of the late avant-garde treated architecture as a thing. By using knowledge of architecture (its geometric representation of history, its formal edification of daily-life, its symbolic constitution of society) as a means to expand the understanding of whatever-else (the representation of history, the edification of daily-life, the constitution of society), their work, as a metaphor, only sought to reflexively fill the epistemological limits of architecture itself. The late avant-garde never asked themselves "is this architecture"? It would be logically impossible for their work to not be architecture as they start from architecture itself. But I would like to argue here that architecture, despite it's identifiable history, discipline, and institution, architecture is not a thing. Or, better said, it is not that architecture cannot be a thing, as it clearly has been and is, but architecture should not be a thing. What I would like to put forth in the following section is that although architecture can be conceived of and used as a thing, as it clearly has been and is at this very moment, architecture should not be.

The late avant-garde operated within a disciplinary context of crisis. Late capitalism had radically altered the heteronomous conditions within which architecture worked, and as a result of this disjunction, architecture was forced to redefine itself within this new situation. Despite the post-deconstructivist claims that architecture is not a text (and the recent calls for a return to 'reading a building', it is not unfair to claim that the late avant-garde employed architecture, in its various interpretations, as a language that can be used to achieve something, and through that effect, a socio-economic revaluation of architecture. It is certainly of intrigue to ask why these architects treated architecture at a language specifically in that historical context, just as the existential foundation of language as a signifying structure was being sundered, but for now it will suffice to state that it did and turn our gaze to its consequences. But my intention does not lie in criticizing the subjective phenomenological experiences of these aforementioned projects, but more-so to critically investigate the approach these architects took towards doing architecture.

Architecture as a discipline was confronted with a historically contingent yet real situation that threatened its existence, to which the architects of the late avant-garde responded by making a myth of architecture itself.
Myth, on the contrary, is a language which does not want to die: it wrests from the meanings which give it its sustenance an insidious, degraded survival, it provokes in them an artificial reprieve in which it settles comfortably, it turns them into speaking corpses. (Barthes, Mythologies, 132)
In the face of a questionable survival, architect's declared architecture as a language that could be put into built form, therefore making it impervious to the fate of the discipline. Albiet unintentionally, the late avant-garde made architectural ruins. If the discipline were to die, it would at least be possible to say 'this is architecture.' But perhaps, maybe this threat was misinterpreted, and instead of threatening architecture's autonomous disciplinary existence, the conditions of late capitalism merely demanded more of the architectural discipline.

We should make something clear: the architectural discipline was and is historically engendered by the building of buildings. But, as Hegel stated, again, architecture itself is the "supplement". By equating the architectural supplement with the process of building a building, the architects of the late avant-garde reduced architecture as to the ideal limit of what they could make with the budget they were given. It was believed that building + architecture = architectural thing. But as soon as we say 'this is architecture', we are confronted with the multitude of ways that it is not architecture, or, how other things are architecture as well, which questions the identification of this thing as an architectural thing. So I believe we must ask ourselves: are we suffice with ascribing architecture to the role of an affix? Are we content with treating 'architecture' as a specific morphology of building, drawing, art, or whatever have you - a single species among many others in a Darwinist game?

Let me restate my thesis: despite it's identifiable history, discipline, artifacts and institution, that can be pointed to and called architecture, architecture is not a thing. Or maybe, it's not that architecture is not a thing, but architecture is more of a thing than we can possibly grasp. We could try to say what architecture is in abstract space such as this text, but this speech act most often goes unnoticed and is uttered more frequently than we can imagine, in the subtle identification of the architect with their work as a piece of architecture. By identifying architecture or the architect we inherently foreclose on the fundamentally withdrawn and infinite truth of architecture itself, the fidelity around which the discipline is founded upon; it becomes a "speaking corpse" that is paradoxically fighting for its survival while not realizing it is already dead. But this supposed death, I would like to argue, is merely an illusion. That is not to say that this death isn't real, as it can be identified and felt, but is entirely based on contingent presuppositions that all stem from the late avant-garde gesture of disciplinary abstraction that was engendered by late capitalism.

Late capitalism, in the spirit of its own foundational gesture of abstraction, often demands the architectural discipline to abstract its object in order to perform certain tasks. But it would be ludicrous to claim that in working under the conditions of late capitalism the production of architecture is impossible due to the abstract nature of its disciplinary demands. It would furthermore be useless at this point to go back to the Hegelian definition that architecture is that which is not utility. Instead, I would like to return to the idea of metaphor to offer a rudimentary framework for thinking about architecture.

More than having come to the conclusion of what architecture is, we have reached various conclusions as to what architecture should not be: architecture should not be a language; architecture should not be seen as a 'thing' nor should it be 'used'; architecture should not be named, nor identified; architecture should not 'do' anything. Architecture should not say anything. Architecture cannot represent itself. Architecture cannot be represented. Architecture can merely be alluded to. Architecture can only be produced, though if we intentionally try to make 'it', we forbid its existence.

In a time where the architectural discipline is again being threatened by the conditions of the capital it serves, we can think of architecture as the result of a metaphor through which a new understanding, a new consideration, a new value, can emerge.

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