picture: La Maison Baroque, from Gilles Deleuze, The Fold (1993)
Diagram: from Old French diagramme, from Greek, dia across/through, gramma something written, letter of the alphabet, that which is marked out by lines, a geometrical figure, written list, register, the gamut of scale in music. (Geom.) A figure composed of lines, serving to illustrate a definition or statement, or to aid in the proof of a proposition. An illustrative figure, which, without representing the exact appearance of an object, gives an outline or general scheme of it, so as to exhibit the shape and relations of its various parts. A set of lines, marks, or tracings which represent symbolically the course or results of any action or process, or the variations which characterize it. A delineation used to symbolize related abstract propositions or mental processes.
Oxford English Dictionary as quoted by Anthony Vidler, Diagrams of Utopia in The Activist Drawing, Cambridge. MIT Press, 1999.
Diagrams are part of a whole family of architectural schools and practices (especially in the United States) nowadays since Peter Eisenman has been introducing them as a primary generator of architecture. I will not even evoke, here, the incredible confusion that makes most of architects to call a drawing, a diagram when it is not one. On the contrary, I would like to evoke the very interesting article Diagrams of Utopia written by Anthony Vidler (current dean of Cooper Union) in the fantastic book The Activist Drawing edited at the MIT Press by Catherine de Zegher and Mark Wigley (current dean of Columbia GSAPP) about the New Babylon by Constant.
Quoting Charles Sanders Peirce, Vidler affirms that “a diagram is mainly an Icon, and an icon of intelligible relations in the constitution of its Object.” (The Collected Papers). It confuses “the real and the copy” and therefore makes it as an “instrument of suspended reality”. This “pure dream” can thus be associated with the notion of utopia that constitutes itself by schematic lines of organization.
Building architecture with diagrams becomes therefore as problematic as building societies with Utopias. Somehow, both require this same tool but it does not go without dangers as the diagram’s lines does not wear the thickness of human uncertainty. Moreover, a diagram tends to draw lines based on the experience of the real, but those lines when materialized, impose a transcendental influence on the real.
In the following excerpt, Vidler bases his thoughts on Gilles Deleuze’s study of the work of Michel Foucault who was probably the most accurate archeologist of diagrams. He also evoke briefly what he calls the anti-panopticon, the House of Lubricity as thought by the Marquis de Sade:
But perhaps the most powerful use of the diagram in early modernism is that deployed by nonarchitects- lawyers, philosophers, and social theorists- to describe different forms of organization according to spatial relations that would of themselves, it was thought, support if not give rise to the social orders imagined. Thus Bentham’s Panopticon, well known since Foucault as an early architectural example of surveillance culture. Foucault himself uses this pattern as an exemplary instance of the performative diagram, a “functioning abstracted from every obstacle or friction…and that should be detached from a specific use”. It is a representation at once of a “thing” with specific content (the prisoner) and of a “function” with generalized scope over society as a whole. The diagram, then, is both specific, in that is precisely maps the space of individual confinement, and universal, in that it (imprecisely) refers to an entire social regime. It is as if the diagram of the feudal estate, castle at the center, cultivated strips and peasant huts around the periphery, had been mapped on the organizing system of feudalism as a whole.
Here I am following the evocative argument of Gilles Deleuze in his study of Foucault, where the diagram becomes a central phenomenon not only in the mapping of Foucault’s thought, as well as Foucault himself, but also in the understanding of modern social organization in toto. For Deleuze the importance of the diagram is that it “specifies” in a particular way the relations between unformed/unorganized matter and unformalized/unfinalized functions; that is, that it joins the two powerful regimes of space (the visible) and language (the invisible but ubiquitous system). The diagram then, in Deleuze’s terms is a kind of map/machine –a spatiotemporal abstraction that “refuses every formal distinction between a content and an expression, between a discursive and a nondiscursive formation.” It is, he writes, “an almost silent/dumb and blind machine, even though it is that which causes sight and speech”:
If there are many diagrammatic functions and even materials, it is because every diagram is a spatiotemporal multiplicity. But it is also because there are as many diagrams as there are social fields in history. When Foucault invokes the notion of diagram, it is in relation to our modern disciplinary societies, where power divides up the entire field in a grid: if there is a model for this, it is the model of the plague that sections off the ill city and extends into the smallest detail. There are accordingly diagrams for all social orders –for factories, theaters, monarchies, imperial regimes. What is more, these diagrams are all interrelated –they interpenetrate each other. This is because the diagram is profoundly unstable or fluid, never ceasing to churn up matter and functions in such a way as to constitute mutations. Finally, every diagram is intersocial and in a state of becoming. It never functions to represent a preexisting world; it produces a new type of reality, a now model of truth. It is not subject to history, nor does it hang over history. It creates history by unmaking preceding realities and significations, setting up so many points of emergence or creativity, of unexpected conjunctures, of improbable continuums. It doubles history with a becoming [avec un devenir]. (Deleuze. Foucault. 43)
It is this potential of mutation, of endless transformation and becoming, that makes the diagram for Deleuze, as for Guattari, an especially transgressive device. As Gary Genosko has recently noted, the diagram organizes an escape from pure linguistics into a deterritorialized spatial zone: “Diagrammatic machines of signs elude the territorializing systems of symbolic and signifying semiologies by displaying a kind of reserve in relation to their referents, forgoing polysemy and eschewing lateral signifying effects.” Diagrams then are ill-behaved, they “do not behave like well-formed signs in a universal system of signification and fail to pass smoothly through the simulacral dialogism of ideal models of communication.” In this way, what might seem to be “an arid algebra of language” in diagram form actively serves Guattari’s “pragmatics if the unconscious” and thence his insurgent social practice: the diagram, in this sense, is utopian by definition.
In this context we might point to one of the more badly behaved of early modern diagrams, sketched by the Marquis de Sade as a kind of counter-panopticon-the House of Lubricity. This is, so to speak, the institutional form of the endless pornographic narratives of the 120 Days of Sodom, themselves given theatratical staging in a “scene” that, as Roland Barthes noted, was a veritable diagram of language itself. Here formal basis of new, purportedly utopian, institutions; and it is here that we can see the intimate relation of a utopian diagram to its predecessors: it gains its iconic significance, that is, by referring to what it is definitely not at the same time as it shapes its own diagram with reference to a mutation of its anti-model.
Vidler Anthony. Diagrams of Utopia in The Activist Drawing edited by Catherine de Zegher and Mark Wigley. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1999.