Category: social

Americans Are Poorer… But Otherwise The Economy Is Doing Great!

It’s a shame – at least for those getting poorer. For those getting richer – it only makes sense.

Here are some changes over a one-year period only (2003-2004) just published by the U.S. Census Bureau:

    “Real median earnings of men age 15 and older who worked full-time, year-round declined 2.3 percent between 2003 and 2004, to $40,798. Women with similar work experience saw their earnings decline by 1.0 percent, to $31,223.”

“There were 37.0 million people in poverty (12.7 percent) in 2004, up from 35.9 million (12.5 percent) in 2003.”That makes 1.1 million more people in poverty.

    “There were 7.9 million families in poverty in 2004, up from 7.6 million in 2003.”

That makes 300,000 more families in poverty.

Update (August 31, 2005):

From today’s article in New York Times…

    “‘It looks like the gains from the recovery haven’t really filtered down,’ said Phillip L. Swagel, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative research group in Washington. ‘The gains have gone to owners of capital and not to workers.'”

And also…

    “Since 1967, incomes have failed to rise for four straight years on two other occasions: starting in the late 1970’s and in the early 1990’s. The Census Bureau does not report household income for years before 1967, but other data show that incomes were generally rising in the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s.”

So, we have a total of three documented periods of such “stabilization” of incomes – one under peace maker Jimmy Carter and two under the House of Bush Warrior Clan.

Update (September 1, 2005):

From today’s editorial in New York Times…

    “And additional census data obtained by the Economic Policy Institute show that only the top 5 percent of households experienced real income gains in 2004. Incomes for the other 95 percent of households were flat or falling.
Income inequality is an economic and social ill, but the administration and the Congressional majority don’t seem to recognize that. When Congress returns from its monthlong summer vacation next week, two of the leadership’s top priorities include renewing the push to repeal the estate tax, which affects only the wealthiest of families, and extending the tax cuts for investment income, which flow largely to the richest Americans. At the other end of the spectrum, lawmakers have stubbornly refused to raise the minimum wage: $5.15 an hour since 1997. They will also be taking up proposals for deep budget cuts in programs that ameliorate income inequality, like Medicaid, food stamps and federal student loans.

They should be ashamed of themselves.”I wonder… in what country do the editors of New York Times live. Don’t they know that America is all about “winners and losers”, “competition, competition, competition…”, “it’s a jungle out there”, and “the winner takes all”. And finally, since “God is in control”, obviously “winners” have “Him” on their side – try argue this point with an American.

And a bit more from today’s Reuter’s story about Katrina:

    “With household debt now up 60 percent in just five years, rising short-term interest rates will already be crimping wallets. Consumer mortgage interest payments alone were up 14 percent in the last year…
Consumer spending on gas, fuel oil and natural gas accounts for just 2.4 percent of the income of the richest fifth of households but 11.2 percent of the poorest fifth, said David Kelly, Senior Economic Advisor at Putnam Investments. ‘Sadly, it is the poorest Americans in the regions and areas that have seen the weakest recovery from the recession of 2001 who are being hurt most by higher oil prices,’ he said.”



“Authorship” and “Mediation” – Battelle on Disintermediation in AdAge… and My Comments

Here are the self-explanatory title and subtitle: “ARE YOU BECOMING IRRELEVANT TO YOUR CUSTOMERS? Why Marketers, Agencies and Media Execs Need to Understand Disintermediation“. Here is a link to the full article (AdAge requires registration). Here is a link to John’s posting on his own SearchBlog.

Among the many good points by John or as he calls them “ground rules for media in a Web-dominated world“:

  • join the ‘point-to’ economy,
  • make your living in the long tail,
  • creative no longer driver,
  • writers go directly to readers,
  • rise of the new middlemen – meaning Yahoo, Google, IAC, etc.

I would like to comment though on something John says:

“Publishers are born connectors, they bring like-minded people together. They are also conversationalists of the first order. They foster the interaction between the three key parties in commercial media: the audience, the author/creator and the marketer. This facilitation is still very much needed. And as much as the folks at Google would beg to differ, when it comes to true value, nothing beats human communication. Figure out a way to be part of the conversation, and you will always prosper.”

I would question a basic assumption underlying the discussion – the “author-audience” relationship – as a given… as something that still needs facilitation by marketers – even in a conversational framework.

I would argue that – on a deeper cultural level – we live through (for quite some time already) a crisis of the idea of “creation” itself as a mode sustaining its terms: “author” and “audience“. Our culture is steadily re-telling the hierarchical “one-to-many” structures through “many-to-many” network models. In a conversation, we don’t really have a “teller” and an “audience.” Everybody is both “talking” and “listening” in a peer to peer environment.

So, what kind of mediation such a conversation needs. “Moderating” comes to mind… which may be as good as Ted Koppel’s televised town square meetings, but is that the conversation John is having in mind? Ted will be retiring soon.

Then, there is the “creative” in the “mediation” business itself. Once you are “creative”, you stop being “part of the conversation” – you try to take “the center” of it. And this, again, reminds me somewhat of Ted sitting pretty on a high chair.

My point being… I am not sure that “authorship” and “mediation” are sustainable values in the context of a real non-moderated conversation.

Comments on Stephen Baker’s "How to appeal to non-bloggers? Think virus wikis"

In a recent blog post, Stephen Baker writes:

    I’ve tried to interest my wife, for example, in our local Montclair, NJ, blog, baristanet. She’ll use it for movie schedules but has no interest in reading or writing comments (and has trouble understanding why anyone would).

So true… Yes, most people seemingly are not inclined to be active media producers or actors. Most of us prefer the “one-click” media engagement. Click – your TV is on; click – look at your new picture; click – go from this web page to that web page.

Most people will not learn the “blog speak”. How about “trackbacks”… Oh, yes… these are links to somewhere on the Web where somebody already said something about what you read here. And this is supposedly happening automatically. For example, I am writing this post hoping for a “trackback” to appear on Stephen Baker’s blog linking back to this post right here – automatically – because I’m linking my post here – back to his original post there. How about easy to imagine… Not to mention “rss”, “pings”, “tagging”, and other similar nerd niceties. Not enticing for most normal people.

And what’s all the fuss about “blog this”, “blog that”… I still cannot get it. How in the world bloggers see each other on the web. It’s not obvious at all. There are the links in the side bar… and in the text itself… true. But how do you easily put these links there. As obscure as any old-fashioned DHTML/Javascript coding. My guess is – bloggers see each other on CNN, may be on Google, locally everywhere in SF, and on Web 2.0 conferences.

And… where is the information? As Stephen Baker points out:

    …it will take new types of blogs to broaden the appeal. They’ll function as tools, and will feed less from comments to other types of input. One example is this new virus wiki (from Ross Mayfield). Here users create the value by contributing data. It’s promises clear value, even for the comment averse.

Yes, most blog posts are comments about other blog posts that are comments on something already produced on old fashioned web sites, TV, or newspapers. There is no much hard data on blogs. But this is to be expected from a publishing format that thrives on quick “real time” typing done by people with other day-time jobs.

And yet… and yet… people can be surprisingly prolific in writing and reacting when faced with serious issues – like personal physical or financial survival, choosing between Kerry and Bush, or more recently – the incredible wave of Internet activity for the tsunami disaster. So, here is a point I want to emphasize – the issues. And then again… the large amounts of useful information.

And here comes the plug – AidPage. How is AidPage relevant? Read my recent posts about AidPage.

Update (July 8, 2005): Turns out Blogger does not support trackbacking yet. No hope for an automatic trackback appearing on Steve Baker’s original post. I did an old fashioned comment there referring back to here… 🙂

Poland Probes The Killing of Thousands by Soviet Secret Police in 1940

I saw the news on BBC… and I remembered my father telling me the story of the Katyn Forest massacre.

I was probably about 8-9 years old. Against my parents’ usual instructions, I, of course, told the story to some of my friends at school. Nobody believed me (but I was already accustomed to that – they didn’t believe me either when I was telling them that the Americans would be the first on the Moon). At that time, most Bulgarians still could not imagine a “bad” USSR… or even a “bad” Stalin. And I was already starting to think “evil” USSR – had to wait almost 20 years to hear an American president say it outloud. Even then, many in the world still thought that Reagan was “too extreme”.

Here is part of the story and a link to the full text:

The Soviet Union and Nazi Germany invaded Poland in September 1939 after Moscow and Berlin signed a secret pact to divide Eastern Europe. Millions of Poles were arrested by the Soviet secret police and most sent to labour camps. But more than 21,000 army officers and intellectuals were executed in Katyn and other parts of the USSR.”

Read full BBC story…

Anti-Architecture Manifesto

illustration by E.S.

Why Useless Architecture

If architecture is “locked” in the “universal chain” of mutual “exploitation” and “channeling” of human life – where every human practice is used for another practice’s goals – perpetuating, in this way, the general condition of instrumentality (nothing is important, including humans, because everything is instrumental), Useless Architecture would give presence to that suppressed human need to be loved for what you are, and not for what you perform. Everybody knows that need.

Design a house without interior space. Or, design the ruins of a building whose original function you do not know. Or, design a small summer house for a Parisian clochard – situated on the sidewalk of a small Parisian street or square. Do not try to meet any of his needs. In summer, he does not need a house at all. Use your professional architectural knowledge to give his life presence.

Why Destructured Architecture

If formal order, structural stability, and durability of buildings are established as architectural metaphors of institutional order, stability of power systems, and durability of ideologies, then, perhaps, Destructured Architecture would give presence to the basic human need for transcendence of given establishments, conditions, or constraints. To deconstruct a structure is a pleasure. Every child knows that.

Think of an institution or people you do not particularly like. Then, design for “them” a “shelter” that, while still standing, would really be “mature” for structural and formal disintegration, and would very clearly express that condition. Use your professional knowledge of formal order and structures the way a criminal with a medical degree would use a scalpel. Prepare a model and test/taste its tendency for formal and structural disintegration.

Why Ugly Architecture

If architecture is embodiment, expression, or a presence of human values, then, we could imagine appreciating Ugly Architecture the way we value people for courage, honesty, sensibility, and intelligence – and not necessarily for beautiful appearance. Designing Ugly Architecture would, perhaps, open our eyes wider to aspects of human existence beyond appearance.

Try to discern and describe for yourself what “ugliness” in architecture would be. Then, design an “ugly” house for your best friend. Observe the relief of not having to make the house “beautiful”. There is also, in your friend, an “embarrassed”, “poor”, “alienated” side that you, as a friend, see and understand. Give presence to that side too.

If you really like an exercise – repeat it.

Original title:
On the Need to Design Useless, Destructured, and Ugly Architecture
Published in: Dimensions, no 7 (1993), 70-71
Journal of Architecture at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan
Aditya Dev Sood (Editor of Dimensions at that time) called my article “The Anti-Architecture Manifesto.”

See related:
Discipline vs. “Field” Discourse

Discipline vs. “Field” Discourse

The original rather pretentious title (I was young then) was:
Towards An Old/New Way of Thinking, Writing, Designing…
(written in 1991 for one of my Ph.D. courses at the University of Michigan)

…the validity, usefulness, adequacy of popular standards can be tested by research that
violates them…

— Paul Feyerabend

illustration by E.S.


Stumbling. However, quite revealing as experience – in Professor Senkevitch’s class on “Thresholds of Architectural Thought…” students have to read the original writings of “well-known” theoreticians – Vitruvius, Alberti, Laugier, Sullivan.

Original writings turn out to be long, complex, unclear, and sinuous – compared to the “well-known, clear, concise, and straightforward” ideas-principles ascribed to these authors by the architectural discipline.

Let us consider Vitruvius. Here are some of my notes/questions/readings of/on/about him:

  • What we term “architectural order” seems to be only the external appearance of what Vitruvius contemplates as “proportions”. Here is what he writes: “Since the external appearance of the Corinthian, Doric, and Ionic proportions has now been described, it is necessary to explain the arrangements of the cella and the pronaos…” (Vitruvius, “The Ten Books…”).
  • Corinthian, Doric, and Ionic proportions (orders) are measurement systems embracing the whole temple – cella and ptera.
  • The ptera is only an “external appearance” (articulation) of the cella (body).
  • There is a chapter titled “Proportions of the Base, Capitals, and Entablature in the Ionic Order” (In Book III of “The Ten Books…”). It is about the ptera as a whole – and not about a separate column and its vertical articulation.
  • The measurements of columns and intercolumniations are, according to Vitruvius, work on the “high relief” of the temple… seen obviously as a sculptural whole.
  • For Vitruvius, the colonnade seems to be a sculptural form-articulation of the cella-body.
  • The columns are NOT structural elements for Vitruvius.
  • Through them, an “external appearance” is presented – uncovering the truth of the temple – its character.
  • Here is what George Hersey (1986) says: “When Vitruvius’ myths are analyzed, the origins of the Doric and Ionic orders impart gruesome lessons. They are tales of betrayal, enslavement, invasion, colonialism… Finally, practically all classical moldings are called after things used in catching and eating victims – human, animal, or vegetable – or after bits and pieces of the victims themselves… Moreover, he (Vitruvius) uses the word ‘entasis’ to describe the slight outward curvature in the silhouette of the Doric shaft, which means ‘tension, straining, exertion’ of the human body…
  • The Caryatides are “placed so as to carry a load” (Vitruvius). The “carrying of a load” in the position of a column is a metaphor only. Metaphor of sin, punishment, and sacrifice.

So, there is “content” in the architectural orders, largely unfamiliar to those trained in the discipline of architecture.

Still, the metaphor of “tension, straining, exertion” seems to be recovered as “mastery of structural forces”. The metaphor of “pro-portioning” (articulating a body in pieces according to sacred rules) is recovered as “mastery of formal order”, and the metaphor of “the entablature as a table of offerings” (Hersey) – recovered as “mastery of function”. Forms of a myth are resemanticized (in a sense and logic suggested by Olga Freidenberg, 1978) as structures of what we call discipline of architecture. Repeatedly recovered through the history of architecture as discipline, this cluster of mythical forms-themes is established as axiomatic structure of the architectural discourse.

In this way, the “origin” of architecture is re-covered/lost in principle for a thinking based on the discipline itself. And “origin”, in a historicist tradition like ours, means explanation and validation. This is why, paradoxically, disciplinary thinking in architecture is obsessed with an ever disappointing search for “primitive huts”, “origins”, “primary needs”, or “reasons”.

In fact, by writing his treatise, Vitruvius fixed the first (known to us) broad referring of the architectural practice to a set of “historical”, “socio-logical”, “psycho-logical”, and “techno-logical” “origins” and “reasons”. In this way, a disciplinary self-consciousness was defined by positing an “otherness”. Stanley Tigerman (1991):

Otherness: From generation to generation, it seems as though architects have been determined to define their craft through the examination of issues extrinsic to architecture. They seek definition in the consideration of function, structure, and stylistic referentiality rather than looking within architecture’s own precinct to discover what, if anything, constitutes its essence.

So, Tigerman is sup-posing an “essence” of architecture as opposed to its disciplinary “otherness”.

Now, it seems to me that, instead of opposing “essence” to “otherness”, we could see them both as “other”. I think that the architectural discipline cannot not look for the non-architectural “other” (Tigerman’s “otherness”) – as a substitute for an always re-covered/lost pre-architectural “other” (Hersey’s “content”).

The non-architectural is what the discipline is thinking, speaking, writing, and designing about. It is the “object” of the discipline as “seen” by the discipline. On the other hand, the pre-architectural is what the discipline cannot “see” (even less speak about) because of its own de-finition (conceptual closure). The disciplinary discourse was formed as to look “outward”. All the disciplinary metaphysics (theory) of architecture was “gathered” through looking at and interpreting of the “outside” – because of this inherent/inherited directedness of the discourse. Directedness “outward” paradoxically stemming out of continuing efforts to recover “essences”, “origins”, “disciplinary cores”.

The non-architectural consists of all traditional “objects” of the architectural discourse – structure, function, form, history, theory, practice, use, façade, plan, section, etc. The pre-architectural is analogous of what Julia Kristeva (1989) means by “semiotic imprints of an interchange with the other”. The pre-architectural is the “affective” experience of the profession – felt by architects and transmitted as the un-speakable and the un-thinkable of the discipline – the undefined “other” of the profession. Julia Kristeva (1989):

Westerners… are convinced they can convey the mother – they believe in her, to be sure, but in order to convey her, that is, to betray her, transpose her, be free of her. Such melancholy persons triumph over the sadness of being separated from the loved object through an unbelievable effort to master signs in order to have them correspond to (re-cover, E.S.) primal, unnameable, traumatic experiences…The initial belief in conveyance (recovery, E.S.) becomes changed into a belief in stylistic performance for which the near side of the text (the pre-architectural, E.S.), its other, primal as it might be, is less important than the success of the text itself…At the boundaries of emotion and action, writing (architecture, E.S.) comes into being only through the moment of the negation of the affect so that the effectiveness of the signs might be born. Writing (architecture, E.S.) causes the affect to slip into the effect – actus purus as Aquinas might say… From that moment on, the world of signs lays down its own logic. The jubilation it affords, that of performance as well as reception, intermittently erases the ideal as well as any possibility of external justice. Immoralism is the fate of that process…”

The architectural discipline is “locked” in a dramatic opposition whose terms are “re-covery” (repression) of the “inner” complexities and contradictions (semiotic imprints, Kristeva) and “mastery” (symbolic order, Kristeva) over the “outer” complexities and contradictions. The traditional directedness “outward” of the architectural discourse (having a hidden root “inward”) sanctions the axis of opposition – inward/outward. “Sacred”, serviced is only the closing, blinding, dividing, conflictual potential of the discourse.

Still, the pre-architectural somehow “shakes” and “nurtures” the disciplinary discourse from inside – making possible the architectural practice as well – as a continuing and necessary transcendence of the discipline. But how does this work?

Field Discourse

Here is an interesting parallel. A Russian author (Porshnev, 1974), writing on the origins of culture, speaks of the “absurd” as being the very foundation of our language, thinking, and social history. On that base, he elaborates: (the translation from Russian is mine, E.S.)

Normally, the absurd is presented as a non-fulfillment of logic’s conditions. What would be to reverse: logic – as a non-fulfillment of the conditions of the absurd… As conditions of the absurd, we could posit the opposites of the three basic laws of logic: (1) necessary polysemy of terms (ambiguity as minimum), (2) necessary contradiction, and (3) instead of “either-or” – “both-and”. Accordingly, we will have to see everything logical as a violation of these rules.

So… the parallel is with Robert Venturi – who, it turns out, also was speaking in “Complexity and Contradiction…” (1966) about rules of the absurd exactly in Porshnev’s sense – and about the need to respect them. Venturi contemplates the “complex” and “contradictory” ways architecture relates to people, cultural contexts, and its own history. But the idea is even older:

The Sophists… proposed a theory claiming that the world itself was in full motion and contradiction, and that consequently the motion of la langue was only corresponding to real mobility … language could not express anything fixed or stable, since it was in full motion itself.” (Kristeva, 1981)

Recent work of Venturi, Rauch, and Scott Brown is characterized by Alan Plattus (1990) as post-analytical, conversational:

…the Sainsbury Wing, for all its thoughtful consideration of the program and the site, is neither predicated upon nor predicted by any single model or method in the architectural arsenal unless it be that distinctly non-theoretical model of a conversation… the VRSB scheme does not hold up to a rigorously analytical interrogation. Indeed, I think anyone would agree that something else is going on in VRSB’s project – something largely incomprehensible, and certainly indigestible, from a strictly analytic point of view.

Frank Gehry’s architecture is discussed by Carol Burns (1990) as an example of topical (rhetorical) thinking and design. Burns takes the notion of topical thinking from David Leatherbarrow’s review (1988) of Donald Kunze’s book “Thought and Place: The Architecture of Eternal Places in the Philosophy of Giambattista Vico” (1987). In his review of Kunze’s book, Leatherbarrow discusses the liminality of topical thinking:

Liminality in Kunze’s book is the topic that directly links philosophical and architectural subjects; it is a sort of seam, joint, or knot. Architectural educators and practitioners know that these days this seam is torn. Students, not faculty, move between the departments of a school and the different subjects of a curriculum, and no one teaches both technology and theory! Likewise projects, not lectures, mediate between what can be envisaged and what can be built. The challenging difficulty of Kunze’s book is a result of its preoccupation with the ground between the separate territories of architectural knowledge, the space between “eidos and polis”, and “type and locus”, “discourse and nature”, “subjects and objects”, “transcendence and immanence”. At worst this is a space between, a gap, or a divide. Seen at its best, however, it is a figure between, a seam as I have said, a joint, or a knot. Understood in experience, such a figure exists in tension, it is a knowledge being pulled or stretched as taut cable. So are Vico’s rhetorical topics… topics are sited at boundaries. In fact, they are boundaries. Topics are limits which articulate points of connection. A rhetorical topic is a Janus in space and January in time, a true coincidence of opposites. The liminality of the middle will be difficult always because it illuminates the greatest differences by inventing points of agreement, which makes it aggressive to the status quo, but also productive.

The conversational discourse produced in Professor Senkevitch’s class on “Thresholds of Architectural Thought…” is liminal. Erudition (authority) meets ignorance (respect), clarity meets unintelligibility, enthusiasm meets (sometimes) lack of interest. Speech meets silence, answers meet other answers, questions meet questions. Of course, sometimes questions meet answers and vice versa. This is not exactly knowledge. This is more like an ongoing (mis)understanding. At its best provocative and productive, at its “worst” – a chat between friends. This discourse is not necessarily “elegant” or “effective”. It could be “ordinary” in a Venturian way; it could be playful and poetic in Gehry’s sense.

This conversational thinking, I believe, should be “allowed” in theoretical writing, and should be professed in design. I see leaving the directedness of the disciplinary discourse for a kind of a “field” discourse – a meandering, “sewing” movement that does not oppose sides, but links them, engages them in a “polylogue”. And I am certainly not seeking a new, “liminal” essence.

Here are a few notes on this “field” discourse, in no particular order:

  • It is a balancing (not planned balance) between symbolic order and semiotic experience (in Julia Kristeva’s sense).
  • It is a discourse produced as existential need, not as instrument. In a recent interview, Venturi says that he found himself in “Complexity and Contradiction…” There are no clearly articulated intentions, plan, strategies, purpose, conclusions. The discourse is not produced as “useful”. This does not mean that it could not eventually turn out to be very useful.
  • The “field” discourse does not convey a totalizing “idea”. Professor Senkevitch does not necessarily try to summarize the discussion – it is rather open ended. Every student is left with his/her own (mis)understanding of what was said. So, we have a dis-course conveying by de-finition many interpretations – and re-interpretations – conversations after class.
  • This rhetorical discourse necessarily produces confusion – it con-fuses experience and knowledge (semiotic and symbolic). It does not “translate” experience into knowledge.
  • This rhetoric is suspicious. Because it reveals a fundamental undecidability. It can be seen as a resurgence of a suppressed “feminine” side of our phalocratic tradition. By “feminine” I rather mean the pre-male (male’s non-defined otherness), and not the fe-male (male’s defined otherness). Jeffrey Kipnis (1989) says that we should perhaps take seriously Nietzsche’s question: “What if truth were a woman”. I would rather say: culture seems to be a wo-man – there is always that semiotic “chora” that bears the symbolic “chorus”. For a discussion of the Platonic “chora” as analogical to the semiotic experience – see Graafland (1989) and Kipnis (1989).
  • This poly-logical rhetoric is not an evolution of author’s ideas, nor is it a revolution against ideas of other authors. It is a co-evolution and ongoing mutual displacements between a personal stand and cultural context. There is no author in the traditional sense (author/audience). The thinker/speaker/writer/designer is a mediator between cultural realities (semiotic and symbolic) – facilitating tendencies for self-organization which are always pre-existing in any context (for the terms “co-evolution” and “self-organization” – see Jantsch, 1980). There is no text, but always, and only, a con-text.

See related:
The Anti-Architecture Manifesto


  1. Burns, Carol. “The Gehry Phenomenon” in: Thinking the Present: Recent American Architecture, ed. K. Michael Hays and Carol Burns, Princeton Architectural Press, New York, 1990.
  2. Freidenberg, Olga. Mif i literatura drevnosti, Nauka, Moskva, 1978. For English translation, see: Image and Concept: Mythopoetic Roots of Literature (Sign/Text/Culture), Harwood Academic Publishers, Amsterdam, 1997.
  3. Graafland, Arie. “Peter Eisenman: Architecture in Absentia” in: Recente projecten Peter Eisenman Recent Projects, ed. Arie Graafland, SUN, Amsterdam, 1989.
  4. Hersey, George L. “Vitruvius and the Origins of the Orders: Sacrifice and Taboo in Greek Architectural Myth”, Perspecta no23, 1987, pp 66-67, Yale Architectural Journal.
  5. Jantsch, Erich. Self-Organizing Universe: Scientific and Human Implications of the Emerging Paradigm of Evolution, Oxford, New York, Pergamon Press, 1980.
  6. Kipnis, Jeffrey. “The Law of Ana-. On Choral Works” in: Recente projecten Peter Eisenman Recent Projects, ed. Arie Graafland, SUN, Amsterdam, 1989.
  7. Kristeva, Julia. Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia, Columbia University Press, New York, 1989.
  8. Kristeva, Julia. Le langage, cet inconnu, Seuil, Paris, 1981.
  9. Leatherbarrow, David. “Review of Donald Kunze’s Thought and Place: The Architecture of Eternal Places in the Philosophy of Giambattista Vico”, Journal of Architectural Education, Spring 1988, vol.41, no3, pp 52-56.
  10. Plattus, Alan. “Toward a Post-Analytic Architecture: Recent Work of Venturi, Rauch, and Scott Brown” in: Thinking the Present: Recent American Architecture, ed. K. Michael Hays and Carol Burns, Princeton Architectural Press, New York, 1990.
  11. Porshnev, B. F. O nachale chelovecheskoi istorii (problemi paleopsihologii), Misl, Moskva, 1974.
  12. Tigerman, Stanley. “Other Architectural Problems and Recent Projects”, Architectural Design (AD), Vol.61, 3-4, 1991, pp 38-45.
  13. Venturi, Robert. Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1966.
  14. Venturi and Scott Brown. “Entre imagination sociale et architecture”, (interview by Philippe Barrière and Sylvia Lavin) L’Architecture d’aujourd’hui, Fevrier 1991, no273, pp 92-104.
  15. Vitruvius. The Ten Books on Architecture, Dover Publications, Inc., New York, 1960.

The “Crisis” of the Traditional Means of Expression in Modern Art and Culture

[a very old thing I am re-publishing here now]

“Means” – the word itself suggests a relation of instrumentality, usefulness, aim. “Expression” also means relations – what is being expressed, by whom, to what audience. All those relations change in meaning across cultures and time.

For example, the Byzantine artistic Canon, from our point of view, can be seen as a practical means for constructing an image. In fact, the relations I listed above were completely different in the Byzantine culture from those, for example, in Modern Europe. In Byzantine culture, the painter would be a means to the Canon, which itself would be a means to God. That is to say – God re-present himself by means of the Canon and by the hand of the painter. Looks like the opposite of the Modern European understanding of the creative process.

Just having stated the cultural difference between Byzantine art and that of Modern Europe, now here is a contradiction. Vasily Kandinsky happens to also think that the painter is just a “hand”. But how does that happen? Why would Kandinsky go back to such a medieval understanding of the relations between painter, medium, and meanings to be expressed?

One possible explanation is discontent with current cultural circumstances, feeling of crisis. Let’s go back to the statements of two key thinkers who play active roles in the modeling of the late 19th century problematics. Kant declares that the aesthetic satisfaction is useless and sets it apart from morality and knowledge. Hegel defines art as the lowest form of knowledge and predicts its decline and disappearance. Of course, despite the huge popularity of both, we cannot hold them responsible for art’s problematic situation – which, in Hegel’s view, can be defined as “situation-limite” – before death.

In fact, these statements just happen to be in unison with the structure of the emerging bourgeois culture. Basic oppositions of that culture were:

useless <<< >>> useful
amoral <<< >>> moral
emotional <<< >>> rational
madness <<< >>> reason

It is easy to spot the “right” side as positive. Let us write down Kant’s and Hegel’s oppositions:

art <<< >>> science
art <<< >>> morality
art <<< >>> reality

Now, the position of art in bourgeois culture is clear. Art is:


I will not go deeper into the so-called “crisis of content” which led to this rather grim situation for art. But, in a few words, this was the progressive paling of the ideal referential horizon – namely, the decline of Christianity. The cultural sphere, which was keeping people together, was vanishing. People were used to commune in God and through God – not directly with each other. The notorious closeness and non-alienation of religious people has always been internally mediated. The communion’s structure (through God) used to be tripartite (referential) and because of that – stabilized (meaningful).

“God is dead” (Jean Paul, early 19th century), the communion fails, the meaning disappears – precisely – the “spiritual” meaning. With the disappearing of the Spirit, the ties “in” and “through” Him fall apart.The alienation is accompanied by a feeling of soullessness. With the disappearing of the Creator, life itself disappears. Under the “emptied” skies, people and things seem “empty” and spiritually “dead”. At least this is how they looked like seen from the traditional “spiritual” point of view. This is what was incorrectly termed a “crisis of bourgeois consciousness”.

This is the situation which provoked the Romantic rebellion in early 19th century. Rebellion of feelings against reason, of soul against soullessness, but also of a-morality (under empty skies) against bourgeois “hypocrisy”. Revolt of meaning – “deep”, “transcendental”, “ancient”, “natural”, “authentic”, “original”, “intuitive” – against everyday, today and here, bourgeois meaninglessness.

Art – placed in a “situation-limit” by a soulless society and Hegel’s predictions – came up with a response. Forced to be outsiders, “starving” artists invented a new, elite, leading role for themselves – Avant-Garde. Against the perceived meaninglessness, they would start inventing “new meanings”. Defying the stifling bourgeois Present, they would begin contemplating more “authentic” times – the Past, and eventually – the Future. Searching for new references, they would explore a variety of ideological frameworks – Philosophy, Nature, History, Christianity (again), Theosophy, Anthroposophy, Science, Sociology, Engineering, Psychoanalysis, Socialism, etc.

Some of them however, like Delacroix for instance, would try Art itself – as a reference for art, or as it is well known – l’art pour l’art. The possibility is discovered for art to express not something else but itself.

The notion of Avant-Garde appeared around 1820. Hegel was very important for the institutionalization of the avant-gardes. His philosophy of historical progress offered a template for all kinds of “avant-garde” ideologies (Marxism included). But there was a peculiarity – as Hegel’s system posited its positive pole in the Future – that is to say in a still-emptiness, there were no rules: no instructions could possibly come from the Future (the Christian “history” was fairer in this respect – the “becoming” at personal level was informed by the presence of an eternal supernatural “boss”). This obscurity of principle additionally oppressed the “cursed” artists. One of their neurotic reactions was the form of the Manifesto – defining a desired Future, writing down laws and rules for themselves, creating a contract between themselves and society. The Manifesto worked as a substitute for the missing patron, for the missing guardianship (B. Tschumi).

As we know, outsiders are often pushed toward a very hard internal work combined with a compensatory contempt for people around. Delacroix initiated a development characteristic of Modern art – concentration on the specific sphere of art itself (independent of a meaningless environment), on the medium itself as engendering specific, intrinsic meaning of the work of art, and on creative work itself as giving meaning of the artist’s life.

There is, however, a third way – besides searching for reference outside art and in art itself. It is the indirect ideologization of art. A discipline outside of art, philosophy for instance, induces an hierarchical model of relationships into the arts. Arts are ranked into an hierarchical order which gives “superior arts” the status of referential realm for “inferior” arts. This explains the domination of music in the 19th century. Music fits perfectly the romantic aspiration for an unclear, intangible, immaterial referential horizon.

At the same time, a very old idea gained new popularity – the so-called “correspondence” between different arts or different media. An ancient idea based on the belief in the existence of a universal cosmic order which, of course, makes very desirable the “harmonization” of all human creation with this order. Accordingly, all arts turn out to be telling the same story in different media. The popularity of this idea among artists is very often underestimated by those writing about art from the “scientific” point of view. Anyway, the important consequence of this search for “correspondence”, happening in the second half of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries, was a quite real effort for mutual re-coding among arts – musicalization of painting and poetry, narrative structures in music, pictorial ambitions in the novel, etc… This, of course, meant mutual deconstruction of traditional disciplines.

I will jump here directly to two mature and very characteristic offshoots of these developments – Picasso and Kandinsky. Not because they are the inventors of the two perhaps most popular “isms” in the 20th century art (abstractionism and cubism), but because they represent two not so obvious tendencies – opposite in their response to the “situation-limite” of art in the 19th century.

There is, in my opinion, a very important difference between Kandinsky and Picasso regarding the Modern understanding of the so-called means of expression:

admitted rhetoric <<< >>> non-admitted rhetoric

Whether the denial of rhetoric is conscious or not is not important.

Picasso admitted the rhetorical nature of art: “Art is not truth… The artist must know how to persuade people in the truthfulness of his lies… Through art, we express our conception of what nature is not… That we need these lies… is beyond any doubt, because through them, we form our aesthetic perception of life.”

Kandinsky talked about “spirituality”, “inner necessity”, and about the hierarchy of what must be expressed:

The Eternally Artistic
The Zeitgeist
The Individual Personality

He called these hypostases three mystical causes – suggesting top-down causality and dependency. And correspondingly, he talks about an hierarchy of composition, a language of lines and colors – a whole reference system. Quite logically, according to the hierarchy of “contents”, the painter turns out to be just a “hand”, a medium through which higher levels express themselves. Kandinsky also talks about collaboration with the Numbers – probably because, since Pythagoras, Plato, Plotinus, Proclus, and Pseudo Dionysius, the Numbers have been placed on one level below the “One”. So they are a kind of sanctioned “way” to the transcendental.

Kandinsky’s idea of “progressive expression of the eternally-objective into the transitory-subjective” structurally corresponds to the Byzantine icon of a saint where the transient passional (the periphery) is juxtaposed to the central eternal image. But, with Kandinsky, the eternal is in a Hegelian way not-yet-become – so, it cannot be “seen” as whole, as a recognizable image. What the painter expresses on the canvas is always but a fragment – unclear and incomplete.

Now, interestingly enough, even this “historical” (Hegelian) explanation of the image-less art (abstractionism) has its analogue in Byzantine thought – the so-called apophatic theology. According to the apophatic theology, every next higher level in the world’s hierarchy appears as infinite, unknowable, and imageless when looked at from below (a bottom-up vision).

Avant-Garde transcendentalism turns out to be structurally analogous to the Byzantine theories of the image. Not by chance then, one of the highest episodes in avant-guarde art would happen in Russia – with cultural and religious traditions rooted in Byzantine theology. And not by chance was Kandinsky a Russian.

Is Kandinsky’s abstractionism a rhetoric? Of course, it is. As a rhetorical move, abstractionism reappears periodically in the 20th century – sometimes under a new ideological cover – ch’an philosophy, for example. But ch’an is an almost admitted rhetoric.

What do I mean by rhetoric? Rhetoric is the free, by choice, but plausible, linking of points in the semiotic space. The plausibility is defined by the disciplines co-operating that space. When unexpected, unusual (but plausible according to at least one discipline) links are realized – while producing/perceiving an artifact – new meanings, new mutual designations appear. The disciplines define what is usual or expected and what is not. But, operating the same semiotic space, they contradict each other. This is why the rhetorical freedom exists and can always find some kind of plausibility or – institutionalization. And this is why disciplines change too – constantly.

Admitting this mechanism of meaning-production – or not – makes for an important distinction. When admitting it – the artifact is being produced with a clear understanding of its openness in principle: the artifact is seen as a beginning of an endless and unpredictable process of meaning-production. In other words, understood is the impossibility to control the meaning.

When the rhetoric is not admitted, the unavoidable re-coding processes eventually decontstruct and debunk the original “meanings” (intended ideology) of the artifact. Paradoxically though, the suggestive power of an ideology feeds off this fundamental discrepancy between intended meanings and a deconstructive reality.

The difference between Kandinsky and Picasso is the same as the difference between Modernism as ideology and Post-Modernism as admitted rhetoric.

Here is what Gleizes and Metzinger say in their treatise on Cubism (1912): “…the variety of the relationships of one line to another must be infinite as a potential: on this condition only, it can express the quality, the immeasurable sum of discovered links between what we perceive and what is pre-existing in us – on this condition, the art work moves us.” These words could easily be attributed to Umberto Eco.

Picasso did, in a way, a visual “textual” analysis of the object. More precisely – an analysis of the visual signifiers, so tightly intertwined in our cultural memory as to form that solid, opaque visual whole – the object. The rigorous cubist geometry came as a necessary discipline for ordering and controlling the overwhelming complexity of what Picasso perceived. His analytical technique was a superimposition of a series of viewpoints and a resulting mutual “blowing up” (deconstruction) of the intrinsic order decreed by each of them separately. This results in the untwining of visual codes and their mutual re-coding. The transposition (re-framing) of this process in the painting’s space causes a secondary “explosion” of re-signifyings. A kind of “nuclear fission” of the internal referential energies of the object takes place. The process is open for endless renewal in the context of every new spectator’s specific set of cultural references and frameworks.

In the beginnings of Modern art, we find the same technique and even the same ideology which are now being thought of as Post-Modernism.

Picasso looked at the present calmly. His answer (with him, it was precisely an answer) to the false “situation-limite” of art was remarkably conscious and quite relevant to today’s discussions of “lost” meaning. With Kandinsky, we have a reaction, dependency, subordination. But this is on the ideological level only. In fact, the various external ideologizations of art are just an unintended way of creating new rhetorical situations which produce new meanings.

A particularly interesting result of this development was the rethinking of traditional formats and practices of art as kinds of meaning-production machines.

For example – “le choix de l’artiste” as stated by Duchamp. A very powerful mechanism was defined – the transporting of a non-artistic, non-beautiful, non-noble object (or person/character) into the “high” artistic space. The beginning of this technique was Manet’s painting “Olympia”. The impact on the public was highly offensive which, seen through the avant-guarde ideology, was meaningful by itself. “Les demoiselles” of Picasso – spirit-less, “ugly” characters are transported into the painting’s space. The result – a “resuscitation” of dead bodies, corpses drawn out of “low” and dark social spaces. Mutilated female characters are propped up to look straight into the eyes of the spectators. Offense for the public again. Picasso was accused of depicting a massacre.

Other examples of such an “unauthorized” identifying of the spiritual (animated) with the non-spiritual (soulless, dead) were the couplings “home-machine” (Corbusier) and “man-machine” – the mechanical theatre of Oskar Schlemmer, “Le ballet méchanique” and the “robots” of Léger.

Similar “illegal” transports underlie much of Modern art – Theater of the Absurd, Living/Process Theater, Pop-Art, etc.

Art learned how to produce meaning on its own and I prefer to say it in plural – new meanings-media, in and through which people can commune. The despair caused by the predicted “inevitable death” produced Modern art as an autonomous cultural practice – as we understand it today.


Originally published in ARHITEKTURA, 3-4/1989, Sofia, Bulgaria