Strategies Against Architechne/The Cash Value of Rhetoric

In Sessions on October 20, 2010 at 5:02 pm

  • If design is the dominant rationality in our era, it is inseparable from the grand machinery of secular striving and making identified by Weber a century ago; it compounds out economic, spirito-religious and life into a single yarn: it is technique itself. — Kwinter, Far From Equilibrium (17)

Your Moment of Zen:

Einsturzende Neubauten’s “architektur ist geiselnahme”

  1. When Sanford Kwinter gives the example of the Andon Board, which is “to post-Fordist production was to the canary was to the age of mines: a boundary marking the limits of tolerance, once strenuously avoided, now ruthlessly embraced,” he reveals the motive that drives design. When he writes that “Communications networks, computer microprocessor control systems are socially toxic entities primarily when used ‘correctly,’ that is, in their capacity to routinize interactions with people and processes in increasingly engineered, confined, and deterministic spaces” he expresses the very heart of the problem. The problem with Kwinter is that he somehow imagines that design itself can solve this problem. That designers can take up the cause, accept the ‘duty and mandate’ to “refuse this new, pseudo-material space entirely, and to follow the “minor” archaic path through the micro-chip, that is, to make the electronic world work for us to reimport the rich indeterminacy and magic of matter out of the arid, cruel, and numericalized world of the reductionist-mechanical and the disciplinary electronic.” But in writing this, he ignores a basic reality: most of the decisions about architecture and design that really matter are made by corporations. The role of capitalist domination in determining our environments is complex and far-reaching, but in this case, I only mean to point out the simple reality that design is never driven by the values (aesthetic or otherwise) of the designers, but by the people who commission those designers. At best, the designer can introduce her values within the parameters established by whoever hired her, but the overall character of the thing designed (be it building or laptop) will still always be determined by whoever is paying for the construction. When corporations aren’t commissioning design, it is generally a public institution, and in this case, the public institution behaves in exactly the same way. Much as the important decisions about public education are not made by educators, the important decisions about design are not made by designers. There is a popular delusion that somehow corporatist capitalism can be transformed through good ideas- in other words, that the free-market will move toward the products and systems that are best for the world. But the weakness of this argument is revealed when we ask, ‘good for who?” Corporations always are looking for good ideas- like the Andon Board.
    Kwinter’s naivete is grounded in some assumptions about material and our relationship to it. In his treatement of Buckminster Fuller and “Wilding,” he reveals his belief in an underlying order to things. Instead of believing in Platonic ideas, he believes in material ideas- as if there is a master key that design can uncover in looking at the materials. Perhaps it is. But when this kind of thinking generalizes, it leads to the same problem that is produced by any Truth. In this view, design can no longer be seen in its relationship to socio-economic factors, or even within the context of minor contingencies. Instead, there is the right way and the wrong way. Just as Badiou imagines that he can silence the sophist forever, Kwinter imagines that the revelation of design grounded in the right understanding of materials will banish bad design forever.

  2. Sixth Response: Asymmetry

    In his text Architecture as Metaphor, Karatani traces Wittgenstein to make the assertion that discourse is/should be an asymmetrical process. Karatani suggests that we respect the asymmetrical relationship by understanding it as the self and other – the “other” loosely defined as a person who does not conform to the same set of rules as those of the self (or the community). Karatani goes further to put these “others” into three camps: the child, the psychotic and the foreigner. What is interesting is that, at least in Part III of his text, Karatani doesn’t really parse out what this “set of rules” may look like. As far as Karatani is concerned, these sets of rules are strictly associated with language and language acquisition. Following Wittgenstein, Karatani focuses on the moments/situations that lack these common rules between interlocutors – those that are brought about by and present in the role of teaching. However, it seems that Karatani does not account for, but still leaves himself vulnerable to, the possibility of a middle ground between the monologic and the dialogic.

    This proposed “middle ground” while perhaps a lofty assertion makes sense to the overall concern for discursive practices and it carries through to broader questions of technics/technae and machines. Consider the Karatanian “self” as Kwinter’s concept of the “concrete.” For Kwinter, the “concrete” is the all-too-often forgotten matter, the foundation that has not disappeared, but yet remains present in the “newness” of technology/technological systems. In a similar fashion, the “self” seems to be akin to this construct – at times disregarded and (as Kwinter would suggest) potentially combated by a refusal of “broader systems of rationality” imposed upon it (95). In the case of the “self,” the broader system of rationality would be Karatani’s “set of rules.”

    So, where is this elusive “middle ground?” It is precisely where it has always been. Looking to Kwinter for the assist, he states that we must “resist these pathways of thought, and wherever possible to expand the concept of the concrete and to extend the play of intuition into new domains” (95). If the self can be seen in terms of a foundation that runs through to the other – then why not expand the concept to consider the possibility that present in the “other” is an intuition that already contains elements of its opposing “self,” and that its own “self-hood” is an intuitive, innate ability to learn certain things faster than others.

    The learner, no doubt, has a measure of intuition. If some practices can be regarded as intuitive – meaning, the learner seems to “pick up on them” faster – does this serve to disrupt the argument for asymmetrical discourse and its sole ability to elicit truth (according to Karatani/Wittgenstein)? First reactions may lead one to say: no – there is still a transactional learning process occurring, therefore the integrity of the asymmetrical discursive practice remains intact. But, it seems that ff we disregard the possibility of an “intuitive element” as a sort of middle-ground in the transactional process, we can then be seen as resorting to the “oppositional clichés” suggested by Kwinter in his discussion of the unfortunate disenfranchisement of matter. And I maintain that the “middle ground” between dialogic and monologic not only exists, but does indeed “matter.”

  3. On page 163 of Architecture as Metaphor Karatani describes the difference between classical and Marxist economic thought on the subject of buying and selling. Because classical economics says “commodities are exchangeable because of their common essence” (163), Karatani argues that they flatten out any distinction between buying and selling. Karatani (and Marx) on the other hand, consider this negligent thinking. In a transaction, the relative form and the equivalent form represent selling and buying respectively, and it is the equivalent form that enables commodity fetishism, by making it appear as if whatever in the equivalent form contains some value in and of itself. In classical economics, commodities are regarded as containing a certain amount of labor, which gives them value. This obscures the fact that the exchange value of an item is always social. A similar misunderstanding arises when classical economics regards money as an indexical tool rather than as just another commodity –albeit one that can be exchanged for anything. While the position of selling might then appear to be one of power, Karatani argues that the seller is in a subordinate position, at the mercy of the values constructed by social forces. (He makes a similar statement about teachers depending on the capacity of others to learn which could serve as a useful participants in pedagogical conversations about power in the

    This discussion of money as a commodity led me to re-examine a brief conversation Jeff and I had about the Ferndale time banks. In this system, participants were given the option of trading services to one another. A person could earn hours watching someone else’s children, and spend those hours on car repair performed by someone else. Does a system like this really escape this buying/selling dynamic, or is it simply “money” without money? And if so, does that matter?

    Although the Timebank’s website maintains that an hour of work is always an hour of work, Jeff suggested that some jobs were “worth” more than 1 hour, even if they only took 1 hour to complete. Iff this is true, then right away it seems that we have fallen into the same trap as classical economics. If an hour is not measured as an hour, the value of these jobs is necessarily social. More importantly, while I think this is an interesting and laudable program, it charges an annual membership fee. Those who maintain the Timebank are essentially a dating service for chores –a service they provide in exchange for money, rather than hours.

    As for whether it matters, it seems to me that it must matter. Rotman at least raised the possibility that money has as much to do with forming us as subjects as alphabetic language. If we want to change that subjectivity, we need more than the same systems under different names. In Far From Equilibrium, Kwinter explains that the title comes from thermodynamic. Changes are easily absorbed into a system which is close to equilibrium, but as it moves further from that point, changes are harder and harder to integrate into normal functioning. Similarly, in his chapter on the Avant-Garde, he touches on 2 types of novelty. There’s a sort of change that is only the regular routine in a different guise, and then there’s the sort of change that actually breaks walls and enables transformation (75). For Kwinter, the emphasis we place on the liberating potential of new technology often falls into this second category. We tell ourselves we’re being freed from the constraints of the material world, while not noticing that we’re cheerfully making ourselves vulnerable to ever-more-sophisticated systems of control and repression. If we really desire change, we must not only interrogate “new” methods and technologies, to ensure that they bring real change, but we must also look for changes that destabilize and disturb equilibrium.

    I feel here like I’ve sort of written myself into a corner. On the one hand, the logical point to make here is that I don’t see an initiative like the Timebank doing either of these things. It’s complicit in a system that it attempts to provide an alternative to, and it functions in much the same way as that system. On the other hand, the FTB seems more interested in getting community members more involved in assisting one another, even if they end up doing so under the watchful eye of those who collect the membership fee. I suppose the point I really want to make is that while movements like this may seem to provide (even if they do not claim to provide) an alternative to a system, we should be reluctant to champion them without interrogating their potential more closely.

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