On Art and the Universal, I

In his Theory of the Avant-Garde, Peter Bürger concluded that the avant-garde’s purpose is for art to sublate(assimilate) into life. In opposition to nineteenth century aestheticism that aimed to emphasize the autonomy of art from life, Bürger’s reading of the historical avant-garde—be it Dada, Surrealism, Productivism, Constructivism, or the Bauhaus—was that it aimed to break down the barrier between art and life, allowing the fullness of artistic expression to pass into all aspects of life.

For a large group of people in the developed world, this is now an everyday condition. Members of the creative class curate their lives around aesthetic choices, work and life are inseparable. Our lives are filled with intentional choices that express our individuality: we aspire to cook modernist cuisine, clean up with Marie Kondo, and obsess over the right boots and hat to go gardening in. STEM and maker culture are not opposed but inseparable: who doesn’t make their own jewelry or design their own body art these days, often using 3D modeling software and printers? Tens of thousands of people worldwide sit on Philippe-Starck-designed toilets every day. The workplace is a playground. Even after the recent plague, design festivals and biennales are a dime a dozen now. Go glamping in Marfa, spend an evening at the local sip ‘n paint, bring your friends to the immersive van Gogh. This curated life is thoroughly documented, to be posted on Instagram for the world to see.

In fairness, Bürger believed that by the 1950s, when avant-garde techniques from Dada and Surrealism had been incorporated into advertising and television (think Ernie Kovacs or Ray and Charles Eames’s films here), the aestheticization of everyday life had been complete and the avant-garde had been dealt a fatal blow. For Bürger, this is a false sublation, but I’m twice as old and jaded as I was when I first read the Theory of the Avant Garde and I don’t see how Bürger’s historical avant-garde could have ever been anything but a temporary reconciliation with an ultimate tragic end. The avant-garde was always a historically delimited moment. And if it’s fair to say that contemporary culture is thoroughly spectacularized, you would be right, but when a book on Constant Nieuwenhuys sells for $1,892 on Amazon, what is the spectacle anymore? Writing about Situationism has earned more than one professor tenure at a top university. Pinot Gallizio’s works, once sold by the yard, now sell for tens of thousands of Euros. The practices of Situationism have long since been absorbed by the spectacle. What is Dîner en Blanc® if not a Situationist practice? What is Situationism if not an excellent guerrilla marketing project?

That the Situationists or Fluxus chose to continue on with the neo-avant-garde was merely an after-effect. No doubt there is much truth there. The historical avant-garde is long dead and with it too the promise of art sublating into life.

Much of the art world has long abandoned any pretense of avant-gardism, embracing instead the idea of self-validation and value. Take NFTs, the realm of garish cartoon apes that have escaped from a Hot Topic store to scream “I am rich.” This is no different from the art at the very top of the market, touted as an investment vehicle that cuts out the vicissitudes of corporate ups and downs, skipping price/earnings ratios and dividends for an unabashed belief in inflation and the greater fool theory, but in reality act primarily as a signifier for extreme wealth and good taste (and often a front for money laundering).

Other forms of art and architecture use politics as a form of branding, taking a page from Debord’s idea of the Spectacle. Take the hyper-branded architecture of Rem Koolhaas, Bjarke Ingels, Diller, Scofidio + Renfro and their ilk, often presented by academic “critics” as somehow serving to liberate people (which I suppose means from architectural convention) or progressive (which is just baffling). 

These two positions—the idea of self-validation and branding—come together in art that espouses a political position or identity politics. Now the central point of the avant-garde had been to communicate political ideas and, especially after the Black Lives Matter and #metoo movements, there has been a burst of interest in the art world in such art. Yet, nobody has ever gone to an art gallery and come out a communist. Hedge fund manager Daniel Loeb collects art by Jean-Michael Basquait, Richard Prince, Mike Kelley, and Cindy Sherman, all of whom have been political art darlings of Leftist art critics and yet is a major donor to Right-wing causes as well as a supporter of the neo-fascist menace that occupied the White House from 2017 to 2021. He is merely one egregious illustration; ultimately one’s political position hardly matters. What does it mean to have an El Lissitzky on one wall and a Frida Kahlo on another? It signifies wealth and aesthetic appreciation, not political allegiance. What does it mean to demonstrate solidarity with an identity group? Why is one lauded for affirming one’s sexuality loudly in art, even if Mapplethorpean transgression can no longer demonstrate the shock of the new? All this merely demonstrates one’s virtue.

Many members of the bourgeoisie, unable to escape the deeply engrained notions of Protestantism, but questioning its superstitions, have replaced the delusion of original sin with the notion of “privilege.” Surrounding oneself with art that trumpets the identity of its maker is a way of assuaging this guilt, even if—as the notorious Whitney “Collective Actions” show demonstrated—political art’s functional purpose isn’t to change the structural condition that it critiques but rather to underscore and cement those very structural conditions. Nor is this new, notwithstanding the newness of the phrase “virtue signaling,” virtue and art have long been linked, initially through religion, later on through connoiseurship. And, of course, for many artists, the idea that art needs to be socially relevant assuages their own guilty consciousnesses for producing useless things for the rich.

And yet, as Peter Sloterdijk explained in his Critique of Cynical Reason, it’s the habit of such guilty consciousnesses to turn to cynical. The cynic (in the sense that Sloterdijk and I always speak of) is someone with an enlightened false consciousness, someone who knows that something is wrong but goes on doing it anyway. Having read critical theory in university, the modern cynic knows that what she or he is doing is wrong, but they do it anyway. Sloterdijk writes that this makes them “borderline melancholics, who can keep their symptoms of depression under control and can remain more or less able to work.” For Sloterdijk, once an individual has become cynical, his or her hope has been lost, abandoned for expediency. Take for example, the Marxist professor (a figure I met all too often in the university) who realizes that with Revolution endlessly deferred, the best thing they can do is to defend their academic position at all costs so they can continue preaching Adorno and Benjamin, even if that defense comes at the cost of cutting down rising faculty, avoiding any political activities outside the university, or looking upon staff as human beings worthy of consideration. Fascism—both interwar and present-day American and European fascism—is the ultimate result, of course, a politics based on brutal expediency, in which democracy must ultimately give way to a “politics of pure violence.”

There is, however, a choice that avoids the cynical, the choice of embracing the most degraded of all ideas in art today, that of “the universal,” and it may not be what many of you will think or find acceptable (although in private conversations, many of you have said that this is precisely what is necessary…). That possibility is the subject of Part II, which will come after an interregnum in which I get some work out there.

Against Management Theory

For a decade now, I've railed against the proliferation of management theory in architecture. In one of those transmutations that only architecture theorists of a certain generation could produce, In Search of Excellence was the next logical entry after Milles Plateaux on the graduate reading list. 

To be fair, this has abated somewhat, although the rhetoric of management theory is often still heard in parametricist discourse, which itself accompanies the stock market in a march of the zombies, stalking us even after their thorough immolation in the economic collapse of 2008.* 

So I was delighted today to run across Matthew Stewart's article "The Management Myth" from a 2006 issue of the Atlantic Magazine. Stewart, who trained as a philosopher but ran a management company for a time, has expanded on the article in a book that I am going to have to seek out (more information here). As Stewart points out, management theory tends to consist of nothing but a bunch of platitudes (be efficient! make people feel like they belong!). Only Elton Mayo's Hawthorne Effect—which makes up the key story of AUDC's next book, to be titled the Hawthorne Effect—proves to have some worth and that's only because it serves to show that management theory itself is nothing more than a process of variation and stimulation.

In any event, at least take a look at Stewart's article. I'll leave you with this question: shouldn't architecture's job in the first place have been to articulate what it offerede and how the changed it promised was different from the world of business?   

*See Owen Hatherley, "Zaha Hadid Architects and the Neoliberal Avant-Garde" in mute magazine, October 26, 2010 and Sam Jacob, "Architecture's Abstract Hubris Lies in Ruins," Architects Journal, November 27, 2008. 



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Why Did Actor-Network Theory Run out of Steam?

Lately, I’ve been consumed by analyzing the biggest story of the decade:  financialization and the ensuing economic crisis which now seems likely to be with us for a decade. In thinking about the #domusweb project, I’ve been struck by how the critical tools that have been en vogue during the last decade have proved bankrupt in the face of the economic crisis.

What strikes me most about this is how clear the crisis was to anyone who reads materialist historians. Take Giovanni Arrighi’s brilliant The Long Twentieth Century. The description he gives of financialization and systemic cycles of capital accumulation in the Introduction should be enough for anyone to make reasonable sense of what happened in the last decade. What’s more remarkable is that it was written not this year but in 1994.  

Or take Fernand Braudel, the other great inspiration for Arrighi beyond Marx. Arrighi points out that in observing the development of the capitalist cycle in eighteenth century Holland in the third volume of Civilization and Capitalism, Braudel writes "At all events, every capitalist development of this order seems, by reading the stage of financial expansion, to have in some sense announced its maturity: it was a sign of autumn." (Braudel, Civilization & Capitalism, volume 3, 246). 

In contrast to Alan Greenspan’s boldfaced lie that nobody could have seen the crash coming, materialists understood full well what was on the way. What puzzled us was the dimension and duration of the boom.

But in certain ways, the academy did miss the obvious. Cogent analyses of capitalism were never part of the discourse in most fields. Instead, capital became too abstract a force, divorced from reality. Everything could be read as a manifestation of capital and rote critiques made for an easy conclusion to "critical" essays. Such deep reading wasn’t deep at all, really, and thus its understandable that such "lite" criticism was rejected wholesale under network culture.

Instead, other explanatory models rose to the fore, models like actor-network-theory. Famously, Bruno Latour asked the rhetorical question "Why has Critique Run Out of Steam?" For Latour and most other advocates of Actor-Network-Theory, capitalism was as much a construct produced by Marxists as an actual entity. Instead, they argued, agency had to be traced across a network of actors, both human and non-human. 

The sad thing about all this is that Actor-Network Theory wound up about as useful as lite criticism, which is not very much. To be mean: how is it that Actor-Network Theory proves so irrelevant to the contemporary crisis? Why, in other words, did it run out of steam? 

Let’s turn all the talk about Marxist analysis being irrelevant in the 2000s on its head, where it belongs: Marxist analysis was way ahead of the game. It proved far more relevant than monetarism in the end. Our contemporary crisis is a crisis of overaccumulation. If that’s not clear to you, then go and read Marx or Arrighi or Mandel or Braudel or any one of a number of thinkers who explain it well. For here perhaps Latour might have something if we read him against the grain: see, it wasn’t Marxism that was irrelevant—it was the construction of Marxism’s irrelevance. A world beholden to the bubble—including in academia—simply never understood that nothing had really changed, except for the level of delusion.  


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The Spectacle of the Innocent Eye

So many of the recent events and discussions in architecture remind me of material I covered in my dissertation. Some of the writing is juvenalia, some of it is prophetic. Either way, it ensured I’d be persona non grata around Cornell ever since.

Enough people ask me about it that I should upload it and see what the response is. Since the original files are now fifteen years old, forgive me for the inevitable formatting problems and the lack of illustrations (a list is appneded to give you an idea of what you missed).

I produced the attached text a few months after the dissertation itself, incorporating further revisions.

The abstract reads as follows.


The Spectacle of the Innocent Eye:
Vision, Cynical Reason, and
The Discipline of Architecture in Postwar America



In this dissertation, I trace the growth of cynical reason and the spectacle in postwar American architecture by examining the emergence of a new attitude toward form in postwar American architecture and the rise of the group of architectural celebrities that represented it.

From the 1950s onward, a number of architectural educators–most notably Colin Rowe and John Hejduk–derived a theory of architectural design from the visual language developed by graphic art educators Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and Gyorgy Kepes. The architectural educators’ intent was to solidify architecture’s claim to artistic autonomy through a focus on the rigorous use of form. In doing so, they hoped to resist the threat to architecture as a discipline, then having its domain of inquiry attacked by the encroaching social sciences and engineering.

Like Moholy-Nagy and Kepes, the architectural educators aimed to create an innocent eye in the student, restricting vision to instantaneous, prelinguistic perception of two-dimensional formal relationships. The student would become a retinalized subject under the influence of outside forces rather than an agent capable of independent action and hence ethically responsible in their life and architecture. In addition, the new theory of architecture was unable to divest itself of its origin in graphic art and produced a formally complex but atectonic, cardboard (-like) architecture.

Against this background, I investigate the rise of the movement’s representatives–Peter Eisenman, Michael Graves, Richard Meier, and Robert Stern–and their relationship to their patron, Philip Johnson. Together, they promoted each other and cardboard architecture, as well as a history and architecture reduced to image.

But history has a material reality: in the 1930s, Johnson participated in the American fascist movement and left as evidence a body of fascistic and antisemitic texts he wrote for publications in the movement. Since then he and his promoters, among them Stern and Eisenman, have carefully repressed his past by making it into a public secret. Ultimately, the kids do not have innocent eyes: along with Johnson they have promoted a spectacular architectural discourse of cynicism.


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far from equilibrium

I was delighted to receive a copy of Far From Equilibrium: Essays on Technology and Design Culture, a collection of writings by theorist Sanford Kwinter the other day. A full review is to follow, but the book is an absolutely gorgeous object produced by my current architectural press ACTAR. Its seductive appearance aside, I was struck by how formative Kwinter’s work has been in my thinking and in architecture culture as a whole over the last two decades. It’s a must-buy.

Book Cover



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An Anti Pragmatic-Manifesto by Mark Jarzombek

Yesterday Mark Jarzombek, my mentor from Cornell and Associate Dean at MIT architecture sent me this text to post on the blog. Reader comments welcome! I’ll hold off for now in hopes that we can stimulate the readership to comment.
Mark Jarzombek
Contextualism is finally dead, let’s face it – except as a survival mechanism in some parts of academe and in the profession. Maybe it is for the best. Its promises from the 1970s never really materialized except to make architecture invisible and bland – a pawn for the status quo – to beat down the imagination of young designers. The turn in the last decades toward sleek neo-modernism has contributed to the death of context; it has created a welcome historical “break.” Modernism comes to the rescue again! But is it enough or will it spiral into the farmlands of phenomenological determinism?
There was once a presumption that contextualism – code-worded in the US as “history” – requiredeo ipso a foundation of knowledge and thus a sense of intelligence. That equation, sadly perhaps, was too ambitious and perhaps, in fact, flawed. History turned out to be too complicated to integrate in design studio education. Design encountered the difficulty of history, the difficulty of sustained reading on the difficulty of modernity, (the difficulty of reading Foucault Lacan and Derrida, for example) and baulked.
For a while “theory” as it was called became a viable hostfor the discipline’s intellectual energies and ambitions, but now there is a battle for its life and soul. It is facing the same problem as “history,” dying slowly in front of us – in the studios, in halls, in our universities! It has become a style, a way for students to get a job.
Theory, as an interrogation of architectural purpose, needs to be saved before it goes down with the ship – before its emptiness is revealed to itself; before our heroes are made hollow. We have words like flow,diagram, and critical written large on a page, but without sub-text, without sub-sub text – texts without erudition – without even a modicum of psychoanalytical reflection – an episteme without epistemology.
Soon S.O.M. will be doing “folds.”
I predict a new fascination with carelessness, a new tolerance for “whatever” in a “whatever generation” – an architecture that prides itself on neither history nor theory, to put it bluntly. This generation will take over the mantel of the “avant-garde,” and demand that it vacuate itself of purpose and thought.
Computation – though not the cause of this crisis – will float through it unscathed; computation has shown that it survives best in arid landscapes, squeezing an infinite variety of possibilities out of nothing, soit seems. There are some efforts to turn the ship in the name of “parametric reasoning,” but will it work? Is it not all “too difficult.” Will computation ever meet abjection? That, probably, is too much to ask.
To get past the inevitable disillusionment – that will be the challenge of the immediate future, academe needs to open up the repressedvalues of pedagogy. There was a moment when this seemed possible with postmodernism and then with the attention in architecture schools, some 10 years ago, of so-called marginal spaces, with the desire to make architecture – and the architectural explanations difficult.
When are we going to reclaim the unmarginal spaces?When are we going to reclaim the center that is also rightfully ours! Where is our search for the impossible, for the impossibly big?
The process has, of course, begun, largely in the new global phenomenon of museum design. What famous architect has NOT designed at least ten museums – in ten different countries. But let’s face it, this is a an ersatz architecture associated as it is with the commercializing of culture. These great museums are ALL a type of anti-center of the center that still waits to be claimed. We have reclaimed the right to make “objects,” brilliant objects for sure, but objects nonetheless.
Everything else be damned.
Central Park in New York – in case one forgets – is completely manmade; it was created over a tree-less garbage dump. Four million cubic yards of soil and rock had to be imported to the site. Five million trees and bushes were planted. Rocky outcroppings were “sculpted” into place, vast amounts of water pumped in. etc. etc.
The process of thinking big has partially begun forced onto us by the possibilities in China and elsewhere. But we can think big EVERYWHERE. Thinking big does no mean that one has to make big things. It especially does not mean that one is a problem solver. One must avoid the Siren Calls of the professionals and the pragmatists. Utopia can still excite!
When are we going to reclaim utopia for our discipline? Whenare we going to reclaim the possibilities and depth of our discourses?

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