As I mentioned in one the most recent articles, I was feeling odd never to have dedicated a full article to the fascinating machine invented by Franz Kafka in his short story In the Penal Colony (1919). This machine is probably the most famous torturing apparatus of the history of literature; even Le Marquis de Sade does not seem to have created such an elaborated piece of equipment (see previous article). The plot introduces a character visiting a penal colony in which he is invited to attend an execution of a disobeying soldier. The entire first half of the story involves the executioner officer who presents the dreadful apparatus to the visitor with great enthusiasm for this machine that was invented by his former master. The device is divided into three parts, the bed below, the inscriber above and, in the middle, the harrow. The latter is composed of multiple needles that draw a pattern on the back of the convict’s body. The pattern is specific to the sentence attributed to the condemned person and, for this reason, it needs to be first set-up in the inscriber. Once the machine is operating the pattern is inscribed in the body of the convict for hours. The latter does not know his sentence and has therefore to learn it in his very flesh. When the visitor disapprove of this execution, the officer frees the prisoner and takes his place on the machine, he then dies in horrific pain when the latter dysfunctions.
Utagawa Hiroshige – Ocean off Satta (1858) (detail)
I have recently visited the exhibition Edo Pop at New York’s Japan Society and so much beauty made me feel compelled to write something about it. This exhibit gathers about fifty ukiyo-e (浮世絵) prints from the Edo era including an important amount of works by Masters Katsushika Hokusai and Utagawa (Ando) Hiroshige as well as others from 18th and 19th century. What fascinated me in them (and that will certainly not fully translate through the images here unfortunately) and made me stay several minutes in front of each of them consists mostly in the fact that each of the line traced on them seems to be absolutely necessary. What I mean by that is that there seems to be a purity of the gesture tracing the lines, a form of confidence, a breath which at the end, gives the impression that the print does not miss a line nor should necessitate an additional one. This could have something to do with the fact that, on the contrary of Western art, tracing those lines is a similar assignment than the one of calligraphy which is also part of these prints. As my readers would know, the art of tracing lines is how I usually define design as well: lines of space, lines of power, lines of flight, symbolical lines, conceiving architecture (building it is a very different story) is closer to calligraphy than what we might think.
One way to perpetuate my fascination for these ukiyo-e prints is to insist on one question that seems to have obsessed the Japanese artists of that time. How can one represents the formlessness we see in water, mud, lava, wind, rain, snow with the use of lines which intrinsically carry a circumscribing power, and therefore a tendency to form things rather than unform them. The various responses to this questions involve various processes that manage (sometimes without even the help of color) to represent formlessness through lines. The strength of their expressive representations carries the ones of the elements they represent and the fragility of humans who can, at best, compose with them (that is often the case for the boats in the waves, although they never seem to be perfectly comfortable with it!). Formlessness is feared at many level of consciousness, precisely for the reason that it cannot be circumscribed and therefore controlled and understood (for a political reading of it, see my essay Abject Matter). Humans in Edo prints are certainly not the Cartezian ones “masters and possessors of the nature”; on the contrary, they are surrounded and subjected to the power of these formless phenomena and, for the most skillful of them, they try to compose harmonious relations with them.
We see them so many times every day that we barely pay attention to them anymore. However, those little symbols of gender differentiation constitute the operative symbol of a society that was built upon the strict separation of the male and female genders. Of course, we could start by the obvious, observing that the typical and ubiquitous bathrooms’ doors symbols shows, for the sake of immediate understanding, a woman wearing a dress and a man wearing pants. The very fact that anybody is able to understand the universality of this symbol is symptomatic of the problem here. But let us go further; the observation that women can wear pants and men dresses could be said to be the degree zero of the awareness of a gender issue. This degree zero is what lead us to fight for the equality of gender and the basic recognition of several sexualities, none of which should be stigmatized. The next degree of awareness of the problem is that the very fact of posing the latter with the terms of women and men as I just did contributes to its perpetuation. In other words, we should not content ourselves with a sort of elementary feminism and elementary counter-homophobia, even if those are still actively needed. The hideous manifestations of homophobia from the Christian right wing in France (who precisely use stereotypical symbols of a classic heterosexual family) against gay marriage and adoption prove it. The contentment of these struggles would contributes to a form of equality, that is true; however, this equality would be between the same two genders, or between four categorical genders (men, women, gay men, gay women). This would simply make the norm evolves and through it, reproduce phenomena of power from the normative bodies to the “pathological” bodies (I am currently re-reading Canguilhem’s Normal and Pathological, hence this terminology). In order not to fall in this “trap”, reading and re-reading Judith Butler‘s work is fundamental as her cautiousness for internal problems in the struggle seems to always equal her participation to the struggle for equality itself as I have been pointing out in a previous article about the processes of normalization.
Aleppo, January 29, 2013. (Reuters/Zain Karam)
As an introduction to this article, I would like to say that I have been hesitant to write the latter as many of the thirty eight photographs posted by The Atlantic on February 20th 2013 (thank you Guilhem) carry enough visual power to bring to them the noxious pictorial fetishism that Western society (at peace mostly) have contributed to develop and exacerbated. Seeing a fighter of the Free Syrian Army piloting an automated machine gun with a playstation controller triggers in us (probably the male part in all of us) a disturbing confusion between game and reality, heroism and survival. That is why an image of this importance should never be shown without a reflective framework to avoid its epidemic (online) reproduction leading inexorably to the domain of the “cool”, this ill-defined realms of things that give us the contentment of an aesthetics without its intellectual “burden”.
Another thing that needs to be said as a preamble is that journalism tends to be more interested in the domain of the spectacular in opposition to the familiar and therefore, we need to see most of this images for what they are: exceptions, accidents, unique manifestations of something larger. In other words, most Syrians, right now, whether they are fully part of the rebellion or simply subjected to the continuous bombing and persecutions of Bashar al-Assad’s government’s army, probably do not have access to weapons having a certain degree of sophistication, if not weapons at all. Reading these photographs in another way would mislead us and draw inaccurate conclusions on the future of warfare and immanent resistance.
Ubiquitous Site – Nagi Ryoanji by Arakawa + Gins (1994)
“If persons are sited, why do philosophers inquiring into what constitutes a person, or, for that matter, into the nature of mind, rarely, if ever, factor this in?”
“Philosophers considering persons as sites would be obliged to develop a person architectonics. They would, I am afraid, have to turn themselves into architects of sorts.” Page 5
Some of my readers are maybe surprised to see the editorial line of the blog shrinking day by day to something more and more (too?) precise. The reason for it is partially temporary as part of a strategy towards the completion of a project that I will be happy to unveil in the coming weeks. Until then, I would like to present one more article about the work of the Reversible Destiny Foundation (Arakawa + Madeline Gins) for a more acute understanding of their theoretical and design work (which are not really discernible one from another).
The title Architecture of the Conatus I chose in reference to their book Architectural Body (University of Alabama Press, 2002) is a direct reference to Spinozist philosophy (once again!) and can therefore be put in dialogue with the recent series of article dedicated to the latter. For Spinoza, each assemblage of substance i.e. body, “as far as it lies in itself, strives to persevere in its being” (Ethics, part 3, prop. 6). In other words, each thing will be continuously involved in a process of effort to keep the integrity of the material assemblage that constitutes it. Any animal (humans included), for example, will keep its body together as long as the latter is involved within the vital process. When this animal dies, however, its body will decompose and its matter will be reassembled in other bodies (soil etc.). Arakawa and Madeline Gins present a similar concept in their book, but before coming to that, I should probably introduce the latter.
We continue today to explore the “cruel designs” that collects each piece of architecture or objects that have been specifically designed to assess a hurtful power upon the body.
Many people know the main characteristics of the Mayan Pyramids as the steepness of their steps. Such a steepness is proper to religious architecture in the symbolical effortful approach to transcendence. However, it also had very “down to earth” killing function in times of peace and war. The sacrificial pyramids’ steps were used as a mean to “finish off” the sacrificed bodies by throwing them from the top of the stair to the bottom of the pyramid. The steepness in that case insured that the body would indeed roll all the way down. In times of war, the stairs could become a veritable defensive apparatus. The Mayans would take refuge on the top of the pyramids and have soldiers, attached to the top by ropes around their bodies, fighting on the stairs pushing the assailants down the steps who were likely to be severely wounded if not killed by the fall.
What I find fascinating in these stories (which would probably deserve to be more detailed by a legitimate expert of the Mayan civilization), is the fact that the killing apparatus invented by the Mayans is nothing else than the stair that we have in almost every building built by humans. The steepness here is merely a way to sharpen the weapon like one sharpen a knife. What does that mean for architecture that an “innocent” stair can become such a violent device? Was the stair even innocent in the first place? Considered abstractly this quasi-inevitable element of the architectural tool set is rather strange. After all, it is nothing else than a series of small pieces of floor that are assembled in such a way that it successively reach a certain height. Many elderlies and disabled persons are very aware of this essential reading of the stairs; they know that it requires a certain degree of energy and fitness to bring a body to go from one of those pieces of floor to another. The stair, in its essence, has already a clear impact on the body.
The panopticon in its totality / assembled photographs by Léopold Lambert
Last week, I had the opportunity to visit the former Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia. The building is particular as it was one of the first prisons to implement the panopticon scheme invented by Jeremy Bentham in the late 18th century. This scheme is not fully applied as what is actually visible from the center of the building are the ten alleys and not the cells themselves; however, the centralization and totalization of surveillance is manifested here and were probably operative to a great extent. The prison was operative between 1829 and 1971 and along the years, some additional branches were even incorporated to the original layout, bringing the amount of visible alleys to twelve (two of them can be watched thanks to mirrors). The small montage above corresponds to a 360-degree view from the center of the building.
I often argues that Michel Foucault, who contributed to made the panopticon well known, paradoxically never thought in terms of architecture (see my essay Foucault and Architecture: The Encounter that never was) as, when he was writing or talking about architecture, what he was really doing was to speak only of diagrams (we could say the architect’s plan). What is true nevertheless, is that such a diagrammatically based architecture definitely tends to reinforce the machinic functioning of this building in the way it absolutely controls the bodies (that is the definition of a prison). If we remain at the diagrammatic level, there is no escape from this systematic operation; if we explore the physicality of architecture however, the means of escapibility correspond to the ability of a body to use the fallibility of architecture in its physicality (there no fallibility at the diagrammatic level). Here is one example: In 1945, two inmates of the Eastern State Penitentiary dug a hundred feet long tunnel and escaped from the prison’s periphery.