At the Edge of Everything Else (or, Myths of Singularity)
June 17, 2020
Melbourne School of Design
From Here; For Now is a series of 36+ online short talks by artists and designers hosted by the University of Melbourne.
In week one, With Things Themselves, we discuss the objects, actions, events, thoughts and utterances that in their vagueness or specificity seem relevant to consider from here, for now, in the loosest sense.
At the Edge of Everything Else (or, Myths of Singularity)
Talk begins at 1:54:10.
Frames, like titles, are important. They are operative devices and platforms; they structure, space and tame. They dictate more or less what we are to suppose to talk about. They push certain ideas to the margins, and others to the fore. The title of this talk, “At the Edge of Everything Else” was bestowed to me by the conference organizers, no doubt prompted by a book I co-edited a decade ago entitled, Architecture at the Edge of Everything Else. And while that book attempted to offer an argument about decentering what we think of as architectural practice, I since have come to think about the field’s center position and its peripheries in very different ways.
To talk about “everything else” without mentioning the center is a means to avoid acknowledging what constitutes an essence or a norm; it takes what occupies this unnamed axis from which “everything else” pivots for granted. This silence speaks to the center’s power and what renders it inviolate. So, I wish to begin by teasing and stretching out this conceptual frame, to define some new parameters for thinking about the center— a space that may not be intended for you. I wish to approach this prompt from a different vantage, with a new set of questions that attempt to think through what it means to be a part of a group of bodies that are held in suspension around a central thing and revolve around it.
Perhaps we can begin with another title. How about “The Many Myths of Singularity.” Why singularity? Because singularity is what is implied when we think about “everything else”— that is, all that does not occupy the center position or a place of privileged interiority; when we wish to describe the alterity that constitutes the periphery. To be singular is to be the one or ones of a class with no other members. To assume singularity is to suggest that things can be understood in isolation, outside the knotted meshes of space and time. That one can somehow sidestep the contact zones between different bodies that touch, continually eroding and producing new contours that reflect these encounters.
But objects, like subjectivities, are never monads in actuality. I, like you, am an ever-changing composite construction much like the table beside me or the glass that sits on it. The sum total of social, economic, and environmental relationships, things and subjectivities are produced from and through and are affected by often unseen entanglements of systems and actors. These relations are structured by unequal distributions of value, labor and capital, which the global pandemic revealed in its wake. Indeed, as Roberto Esposito has shown, both persons and things have historically been interchangeable categories under practices of domination since ancient Rome, wherein the possession of things became the possession of people and persons became property. “To possess a patrimony,” he writes, “meant not only to have things—including that abstract thing called money, destined to acquire all other things—but also to exert domination over those who had less, or did not have any at all, and who were therefore forced to place themselves in the hands of the possessors.”1
The practice of architecture has long championed the singular—from canonical buildings and their creators, to particular historians and their texts. Its disciplinary frame that privileges its “autonomy” has, in turn, disciplined its own content by sanctioning a specific sect of voices and bodies to define its discursive enclosures, while others are left still waiting outside, thus limiting the potential of its own expansion. Its stories and images reify the profession’s propensity to consider “everything else”—that is, real life—as abstractions, as fictions that can be delimited and deformed to not interfere with an author’s identity or a building’s objecthood. As a profession, it betrays its allegiances to its small number of gatekeepers, who can afford the indulgence of reducing social realities to topics for humanistic inquiry or optical effects.
The result is a system that proscribes alterity and otherness as topics for contemplation, as opposed to the actual, experiential conditions of life itself. Inequality is often retooled in architecture’s academic discourses as an abstraction to be analyzed, without consideration of how the discipline’s frameworks perpetuate the marginalization and erasure the field claims to reject. Architectural conferences about how Black Lives Matter will feature nominal input from Black scholars, a misstep rooted in the uneven allocations of platforms in academia such that knowledge production must be sanctioned and funded by white administrators. Meanwhile schools continue to tout diversity mandates in press releases, although their faculty and student demographics, methodologies and curricula do not recognize the reality that difference is actually the norm. Systems of publishing and outlets for journalism reveal their preference for white writers, encouraging the writing of histories of others, rather than letting these others tell stories of their own. As one hand of the system claims to offer historical recuperation by writing the rights of others, the other erases the efficacy of such gestures to maintain that the balance of power is restored, ensuring it has no lasting effect.
When architecture itself becomes singular, its perception is noticeably different from what is generally found or experienced in the world. Its misreadings of philosophy act as confirmation bias for the field’s authorial irresponsibility; object-oriented ontological philosophies which seek to liberate nonhuman actors from anthropocentric violence are distorted by architects as opportunities to imagine material culture as self-governing and divorced from the reality of its too often exploitative contexts. Issues like climate recuperation are framed as occasions for formal play, cultural appropriation of so-called “primitive” techniques and technological opportunism, rather than the byproduct of brutal legacies of environmental racism exacerbated by the globalized economy. Likewise, manufactured materials are often discussed for their formal and structural properties, rather than their social and environmentally destructive effects.
Competition and individualism also drive the myth of the singular, obscuring the sense of interconnectedness required to decolonize architecture from its past and present. These neoliberal ideals are cultivated in architecture schools and in professional practice—both are dispositif for the production of this adherence to modern subjectivity. Round-the-clock labor, self-concerned entrepreneurialism and rivalry reflect the ideals of the “self-organizing” market. This rationality is not coercively championed; rather, it is slowly indoctrinated in the profession’s approach to everyday life.
For some of us, the barriers preventing entry into the field are aplenty if one’s identity does not represent the center core. Entry into education and practice often require adopting a badge of exceptionalism, especially if one’s difference can be leveraged as a symbolic reward for the system. For Black, Indigenous and People of Color, our marginal status is a reminder of how lucky we should feel: as the diversity hire, a number in a quota, a data point, or a token representative of “ethnic difference” on a panel. Yet being an exception does not feel exceptional; it is a reminder that you are part of the realm of “everything else” which architecture is supposed to design for and claims to address, yet rarely provides for such engagements to take place or the adequate space and time to develop the vocabularies required to articulate the physical and psychic dimensions to occupying states of exclusion.
Silence, then, becomes as much a survival tactic of assimilation, as it is a means to betray our connection to other communities of color. Staying silent—and thus invisible—is a social cloak protecting one from the nakedness of one’s difference. I write as an East Asian woman guilty of this infraction. As a child of working class immigrants, I was told I should be grateful for the opportunity to attend schools populated by middle-class and wealthy white people. Erasure and invisibility within a nation state that I was born in magnified this sense of unease and unworthiness. Opening a magazine or an art or design book, I never saw an image of someone who looked like me. There was no one in the government or in education that I could identify with. I was hard pressed to pinpoint any Asian woman with a public voice or a seat in power.
We should ask more often why it is that architecture’s frame is so exclusionary, especially given its role as a discipline committed to worldmaking. Of course, there are numerous stories we could tell and lines we could trace in search of that single moment in which the discipline decidedly betrayed its own ethics, but the truth is its adherence to the values and practices of white supremacy and colonialism took place incrementally through objects and stories and banal things. Rhetorics of centrality and unity based on a definition of humanism that emerged in Europe in the interval between and following the two World Wars fueled much of this production. The brand of European humanism upon which they were based adhered to what Audre Lorde has referred to as “a mythical norm.”2 This notion of humanism was predicated on an imagined human type or standard, one that tended to mirror the experiences of the privileged few who possessed the power to act on their imaginations, rather than be acted upon. The colonial unconscious fueled much European modern architectural expression that has since formed architecture’s education and techniques.
In this sense, we should be wary when contemporary projects still attempt to perpetuate the social vision of modern architecture—what Antonio Gramsci referred to as a “common sense”: a singular image of history, growth, and civilization that could be accessed, understood, and identified by all. When differences are marginalized, rather than celebrated, to develop a singular concept of “the human,” such logics act as conceptual camouflage for a new kind of hegemony. Yet experience is not a singular, reproducible thing. Can we imagine difference without inferiority or difference without polarity? Or, in Fred Moten’s words, difference without separation? To do so is the only way forward in this moment when “normality” as such has been destabilized even for the status quo. This is a time of examining the frames by which we define concepts of centers and peripheries. How insides and outsides are created. How community often produces immunity. How singularities and “everything else” are understood.