Intersections: Philosophy and Critical Theory
Reviewed by: Georgios Tsagdis (University of Westminster)
“For Architecture no longer defines a domain.”
To begin with the title. ‘The last fortress of metaphysics’ is for Francesco Vitale architectural; it is indeed, architecture itself—at once protected and encumbered by a manifold of “theoretical, political, institutional, symbolical, and material resistances” (xvi). In its encrusted ‘lastness’ architecture presents thus the litmus test of deconstruction, making the latter’s intervention into the former the measure of deconstruction’s efficacity.
This is because at and from the outset philosophy and architecture have found themselves “in the most essential of cohabitations” (xv). The apparent oblivion to the fraught resonances of the “cohabitation with women” that haunt Rousseau’s supplementarity across the pages of the Grammatology will be partly compensated by the book’s opening two chapters, which will undertake to think habitation in the figure of the oikos. At the outset however the cohabitation of philosophy and architecture is established in the strange, troubled even, generality of the latter. In a passage of Derrida, which the short book will quote thrice (repetition ringing across the text worse than a stylistic shortcoming) and which must thus appear here in toto, architecture’s generality is contested by logical and material consistency, if not constancy:
“On the one hand, this general architectonic erases or exceeds the sharp specificity of architecture; it is valid for other arts and regions of experience as well. On the other hand, architecture forms its most powerful metonymy; it gives it its most solid consistency, objective substance. By consistency, I do not mean only logical coherence, which implicates all dimensions of human experience in the same network: there is no work of architecture without interpretation, or even economic, religious, political, aesthetic, or philosophical decision. But by consistency I also mean duration, hardness, the monumental, mineral or ligneous subsistence, the hyletics of tradition.” (xiv, 3, 90)
It is at the juncture of this hyletics, upon the rock of its consistency, that Derrida’s confrontation with Peter Eisenman will play out, a confrontation of particular significance for the encounter of deconstruction and architecture. But since the onto-political fate of the latter with philosophy will be from the outset intertwined, so must be the fate of their critique. Accordingly, Derrida destabilises and solicits the significance of the architectural foundation: “Architecture must have a meaning, it must present this meaning, and hence signify. The signifying or symbolic value of this meaning must command the structure and syntax, the form and function of architecture. It must command it from the outside, according to a principle (archē), a grounding or foundation, a transcendence or finality (telos) whose locations are not themselves architectural.” (xviii) With the same stroke, Derrida solicits the significance of the sign itself, a significance always already philosophical. It does so, by exploring the work of spacing that antecedes all given and constituted internal and external spaces.
Law of the Oikos
Vitale’s exploration begins with a return to the ‘law of the oikos’. The book’s first two chapters deal with the Hellenic legacy that informs the shared fate of philosophy and architecture. For, as Derrida reminds us: “there is an architecture of architecture. Down to its archaic foundation, the most fundamental concept of architecture has been constructed. […] This architecture of architecture has a history.” (1) Vitale locates the significant point of entry to this history in the Greek polis in its intricate relation to the oikos.
The politics of habitation in Athens rests on the myth of king Erichthonius, “who was born directly from earth, not from a woman, but from the soil fecundated by the seed of Hephaestus, dispersed after his clumsy attempt to possess Athena.” (7) In this reading, the soil from which Erichthonius emerges, becomes the mythical foundation of all eco-political foundations. Since no reality will be able to adequate the myth, the latter will continue to haunt the imaginary of the West, producing building and dwelling as much as theoretical and political effects. For Derrida, this ontopology, this “axiomatic linking indissociably the ontological value of present-being (on) to its situation, to the stable and presentable determination of a locality, the topos of territory, native soil, city, body in general,” is today more obsolete than ever. (7) This certainly does not mean overcome.
The Erichthonian soil determines the law of the oikos, a law that “imposes the task of thinking identity (ontological and political identity) in terms that are irreducibly spatial: origin as a place, permanence, stability, being distinguished and protected from difference, alterity, the stranger, and the foreign.” (11) It does so by presenting itself as an immutable, yet indeterminate foundation. This terrestrial foundation bears the name of khōra.
Since khōra “is neither sensible nor ideal, not even a being, it cannot be determined in any way as a being could be. For this reason, to describe it, Timaeus must use a set of analogies (the receptacle, the cast, the sieve, the nursemaid, etc.), assuming that none of them are adequate since they all come from the sensible determined in the khōra. This third remains indeterminate: the indeterminate that prevents itself from any possible determination and makes every determination possible. But, at the same time, in its indeterminateness khōra imposes on us the thought that all that is, is as such because it takes place, has an origin that remains fixed, permanent, and stable, has a proper place, oikēsis idias.” (12)
Derrida explicates the status of the khōra further: “Perhaps, because it can receive everything, one could give it all the names one wants, since it can take any form, ultimately one could give a name different from khōra. As it does not exist under the form of a being identical with itself, of an ideal referent or a thing, one does not see why it would have only one name. But it is precisely because of this that it is always necessary to name it in the same way, since it is paradoxically necessary to keep the sense that it has no sense.” (12) Being the signifier of a signified which is not, the khōra is at the same time a quasi-index, a this, each time unique, yet nonetheless a name, and as such more than a mere this, a cipher eliding indication and signification.
Khōra accordingly designates political space, in the primary sense of invested, occupied space. (13) This space is occupied by the ‘dead sons of the polis’, the Erichthonian progeny which returns to rest forever in the originative soil of the city, now the burial ground of the Kerameikos. (8) The soil of the city the dead will share with the heroes, the cult of which is reactivated in the 8th century BC. The Mycenaean constructions, used by the cult are thus reactivated, offering not only the reassurance of a religious a continuity, but also assuming “a civic as well as territorial value,” by gathering the community and rooting it in the soil. In tandem, the acropolis will be “heir of the royal fortress of the Mycenaean age,” circumscribing the unity of the polis. (22) Whereas the fort would guarantee permanence to the city because of the security it afforded, the architectural permanence of acropolis offers a symbolic security. Positioned at the akron, the visible limit of the polis, it determines its whole territory, stabilising the khōra. The ethico-political significance of this stability will lend support to the Socratic indictment of the itinerant sophists, who lack a proper place, an oikos and thus the nomos, the law that pertains to it. (10) The city must exclude the dangerous other: it is a philosophical as much as an architectural function, a function summed up in the designation of an outside against a stable, striated inside. The law of the oikos, coupled with the law of the polis protect this inside, arresting and fixing the fluidity of the khōra.
Politics of Architecture
For Vitale, the significant contribution of deconstruction is precisely the re-articulation of all stability into effects of stabilization and sedentarization (let it be recalled that de-construction determines itself from the outset as de-sedimentation). Thus places lose their mythical-metaphysical origin and identity, appearing as effects of dislocation and localization, whereas the human appears as the effect of a situated self-inscription, placed by default in relation to otherness and the other. (29) Opening up a space in which to think and live this relation, is the contribution of deconstruction. (30) The law of the oikos, which protected the inside from the outside, the familiar from the stranger, and which informed the history of architecture, as well as that of the ‘architecture of architecture’ is here suspended (31). It becomes thus possible to conceive an other end of architecture, decoupled from dwelling. It certainly becomes possible to conceive of a different dwelling. For this “the deconstruction of architecture must in turn become work, it must become architecture.” (33)
The promise of this ‘architecture to come’ is affirmative of its own possibility, yet never positive. It never posits itself in a fortified security, but remains ‘risky, uncertain, improbable’. (34) It thus remains open and assumes the responsibility not only towards its own future, but towards the other to come, the nameless other, whom we do not know, cannot prefigure and imagine, the other that we do not know when, and altogether whether, will arrive. (38) This is a task not only of architecture, but of the polis as a whole. In order to achieve this, a city must strive to remain “indefinitely and structurally non-saturable, open to its own transformation, to additions that come to alter or dislocate as much as possible the memory of the heritage.” (41-2) As prime counterpoint to the acropolis and the funerary sēma, “Derrida conjures up the example of the temple of Ise in Japan, the most remarkable place of worship of Shintoism. The temple has been dismantled and rebuilt with new materials every twenty years for one thousand five hundred years.” (42) If such a thing was ever needed, one has here the most literal and least literary moment of deconstruction. It is all the same a sign.
The following, fourth, chapter undertakes to trace the passage ‘from architecture to writing’ and then ‘from writing to arche-writing’. Derrida, wishes to abandon ‘the envelope of a book’ to seek a different organisation of space—a space, where one does not only read, but also write between the lines. As readers, we are not handed over the model or blueprint of such ‘architectural artifacts’ as Glas or La Carte Postale, but are rather invited to inhabit their text. (47) Neither, because there is no model, nor because the model must be kept secret; we are not presented with the architectonics of architecture, because although the act of writing that has escaped the book, is a spacing akin “to the production of architectural drawing,” (49) this drawing resists its summary, its reduction to a few master-lines. The architecture of deconstructive writing resists the enclosure and subsumption under its own archē.
The book represents for Derrida precisely such a closure or totality, be it finite or infinite, of the signifier, which can only be established, once a totality of the signified has been previously asserted. (50) Although the historic veracity of this assertion is hardly questionable, Vitale could have here explored the necessity of the equivalence: even though no ground or telos might ultimately support totalisation, it appears theoretically possible to de-couple a totality of signifiers from a totality of signifieds. A ‘trans-total’ correspondence, one between a totality and a non-totality, is imaginable.
Architecture offers a paradigmatic possibility of a rupture with totalising writing. Pluri-dimensionality becomes the operative word. In Vitale’s words: “architectural writing is able to articulate geometric and mathematical notation, perspectival drawing and multiple reference systems, computer graphics, diagrams, photography, spectrography (which detects the physical nature of sites and materials as well as the anthropic presence), tridimensional models, and so on.” (51) It contributes thus to the deconstructive programmatic of conceiving “in a manner at once historical and systematic, the organized cohabitation, within the same graphic code, of figurative, symbolic, abstract, and phonetic elements.” (58) The war of linearisation against the originary pluri-dimensionality of writing, a war that reduced the cohabitation of these dimensions to successivity has long appeared won. Derrida, after Leroi-Gourhan, discovers the potentiality of resistance against the dominion of linearity, which marks the promise of a different scriptural future, in the sign of the ‘mythogram’. In the mythogram, “meaning is not subjected to successivity, to the order of a logical time, or to the irreversible temporality of sound. This pluri-dimensionality does not paralyze history within simultaneity.” (59) Mythography grants us access to arche-writing. Leaving this passage to arche-writing underexplored, Vitale follows Derrida, in an open gesture towards writing and reading architecture as mythography.
The fifth chapter explores the theme of spacing as it comes into play in Tschumi’s research and work. Spacing must be understood not only as an empirical necessity of every system of notation, of every scriptural or inscriptive system, but also as an irreducible condition of experience and of the production of meaning. Spacing is already there in every presence, at the heart of its own self-immediacy. (63) Accordingly, spacing is the imprint of the play of the trace, of a movement that produces space in its unfolding. The trace, as “the opening of the first exteriority in general,” (56, 64) spaces by showing the exteriority at the heart of every interiority.
For Vitale, Tschumi’s work follows faithfully the play of the trace. It is thus able to offer a new architectural possibility, a possibility that is “neither architecture nor anarchitecture, [but rather] transarchitecture.” (68) What is particularly significant and particularly topical for Derrida in transarchitecture is that “it comes to terms with the event; it no longer offers its work to users, believers, or dwellers, to contemplators, aesthetes, or consumers. Instead, it calls on the other to invent, in turn, the event, to sign, consign, or countersign: advanced by an advance made to the other—and maintaining architecture, now architecture.” (69) At a given juncture, Tschumi offers for Derrida the inventive now.
In the Manhattan Transcripts Tschumi’s struggle to escape the confines of received architectural writing becomes apparent: “The original purpose of the tripartite mode of notation (events, movement, spaces) was to introduce the order of experience, the order of time—moments, intervals, sequences—for all inevitably intervene in the reading of the city. It also proceeded from a need to question the modes of representation generally used by architects: plans, sections, axonometries, perspectives. However precise and generative they have been, each implies a logical reduction of architectural thought to what can be shown, to the exclusion of the other concerns. They are caught in a sort of prison-house of architectural language, where “the limits of my language are the limits of my world.” [Wittgenstein] Any attempt to go beyond such limits, to offer another reading of architecture, demanded the questioning of these conventions.” (71)
It is precisely the function of movement in Tschumi’s work that destabilises calculability and universality, to bring forth the unique now in which a play of differences becomes possible for architectural writing. Again The Manhattan Transcripts: ‘The movements—of crowds, dancers, fighters—recall the inevitable intrusion of bodies into architectural spaces, the intrusion of one order into another. The need to record accurately such confrontations, without falling into functionalist formulas, suggests precise forms of movement notation. An extension of drawing conventions or choreography, this notation attempts to eliminate the preconceived meaning given to particular actions in order to concentrate on their spatial effects: the movement of bodies in space.’” (72)
It is because of this attentiveness to the plasticity that the play of the trace necessitates, that Tschumi appears not to betray the promise of deconstruction for a different architecture. Thus, the “unique existence and logic” that “books of architecture, as opposed to books about architecture” develop, (70-1) will not be met by Vitale with the suspicion reserved for Eisenman’s attempt to extricate architecture from the exigencies of deconstruction, by establishing a sui generis space for it. Perhaps then the space devoted to the latter’s critique would have been better employed in following much more closely the former’s appraisal, exploring the architectural pathways opened by Tschumi’s practice.
Eisenman the Apostate
The penultimate chapter is then devoted to Eisenman—a cul-de-sac of deconstruction. A certain early rapport of the two men in view of a collaboration on the La Villette park project quickly came to a head. The rupture manifested in dramatic fashion at the 1989 congress in Inrvine, which Derrida decided not to attend. It was precisely this performative absence that dramatised their divergent positioning vis-à-vis the place and function of absence in thought and architecture. Derrida used his physical absence to address on tape a series of questions to Eisenman—a spectral confrontation. (79)
Derrida had proposed his essay Khōra as common ground for their joint exploration, a text and a notion that we saw pose a challenge to territorial foundations of identity. (17) Eisenman retracted in view of this challenge. The concrete materiality of the physical presence of buildings meant for Eisenman that “the term [deconstruction] is too metaphorical and too literal for architecture.” (82) The full scope, however, of the double hyperbole is only made apparent in Eisenman’s attempt to break with the way in which deconstruction engages with oppositionality: “In my view, your deconstruction of the presence/absence dialectic is inadequate for architecture precisely because architecture is not a two-term but a three-term system. In architecture, there is another condition, which I call presentness—that is neither absence nor presence, [neither] form nor function, but rather an excessive condition between sign and being. As long as there is a strong bond between form and function, sign and being, the excess that contains the possibility of presentness will be repressed.” (87)
Presentness as the third term is the wager of the whole dispute and the point on which Vitale will concentrate his vindication of deconstruction. He will do so by means of a theoretico-historical and a logical argument. The former suspects the structure of a transcending-encompassing third of regressing into dialectics and producing dialectical effects. Accordingly, Eisenman will remain haunted by the spectre of an architectural Hegelianism; a spectre he will not even attempt to shake off. (88) The latter argument presents Eisenman’s logic as circular. We are given to read: “Presentness is the possibility of another aura in architecture, one not in the sign or in being, but a third condition of betweenness. […] This excess is not based on the tradition of the plenitude, but rather is the condition of possibility of presentness.” The circle is clear: “Presentness is the condition of possibility of the excess that is the condition of possibility of presentness.” Neither Eisenman, nor Vitale seem to be interested here in a notion such as ‘equi-primordiality’, as an escape from the conundrum.
What emerges in the brevity of this exposition is the introduction of aura as the halo of presentness, which amounts for Eisenman to the “presence of absence.” (90) This is why Derrida will take advantage of his absence to say to Eisenman on tape: “I’m not going to take advantage of my absence, not even to tell you that you perhaps believe in it, absence, too much.” (80) Eisenman believes in absence too much because he believes in the redemptive possibility of its presentification. The implications for Derrida—or what Vitale diagnosed as dialectical effects—are significant: “Whether it has to do with houses, museums, or university research laboratories, what distinguishes your architectural space from that of the temple, indeed of the synagogue (by this word I mean a Greek word expressing a Jewish concept)? Where will the break, the rupture have been in this respect, if there is one, if there was one, for you and other architects of this period with whom you feel yourself associated? I remain very perplexed about this subject; if I had been there, I would have been a difficult interlocutor.” (81)
The difficulty for Derrida amounts to the attempt, both impossible and regressive, to presentify absence. Thus his spectral advise to Eisenman: ‘Well, you can strategically insist on absence as a disruption of the system of presence, but at a certain point you have to leave the theme of absence’.” (93). Derrida who confesses to feeling like an architect when writing, the paradox of architecture cannot be sublimated:
“The paradox, of course, is that on the face of it, architecture seems to have nothing to do with absence, in one of Heidegger’s texts, he says that a temple is a place where God is present, but that implies that the temple is an empty place ready to receive God. It is the ultimate paradox of logocentrism. […] So, because of its unique relationship to representation, architecture is more ‘present’ than any other art, but at the same time, being the most ‘present’, it is also the strongest reference to the opposite of presence, namely absence.” (92)
In the artifacts of the architectural tradition and despite the latter’s claims, the cohabitation of presence and absence remains productively irresolvable. Within this picture Eisenman appears merely to reinscribe a traditional gesture in the architectural matrix.
In order to decide the fate of this gesture Derrida invites Eisenman to position himself with regard to Benjamin’s essay Experience and Poverty, in which a ‘constructive destruction’ of aura is undertaken by the ‘new Barbarians’. (90-1) Benjamin observes the destruction of aura in the glass and steel work of architects such as Loos and Le Corbusier build with steel and glass. The hardness of the former and the (assumed) transparency of the latter preclude auratic effects, such as uniqueness, exclusiveness and mystification. Eisenman, whose attempt to rehabilitate aura is by now clear, will sidestep Benjamin’s essay.
Returning to the challenge of khōra to foundational origins, Derrida shows the need to think the auratic play of presence and absence through the notion of the trace: “The living present springs forth out of its nonidentity with itself and from the possibility of the retentional trace. It is always already a trace. This trace cannot be thought out on the basis of a simple present whose life would be within itself; the self of the living present is primordially [originairement] a trace. The trace is not an attribute; we cannot say that the self of the living present “primordially is” it [l’‘est originairement’]. Being-primordial [l’être-originaire] must be thought on the basis of the trace, and not the reverse. This arche-writing is at work at the origin of the sense.” (85) The difference becomes thus clear: whereas Eisenman’s phenemonological trace enables a reconstitution of presence as retention of absence, Derrida’s deconstruction of this traces shows presence as a transitory effect of the trace’s movement. (87, 93, 95)
Here ends therefore Derrida’s engagement with Eisenman, as well as Vitale’s chapter. It is perhaps unfortunate that the latter did not attempt to identify and extract those intuitions in the latter’s work that originally attracted Derrida, and might still hold the potential of productive effects—intuitions working precisely against Eisenman’s overall gesture. The chapter’s polemic shares thus little of deconstruction’s sense of a fidelity working from within, remaining rather a siege extra muros.
The last chapter of the book functions as a coda to the series of forays of the previous chapters. Vitale returns with Derrida to Saussure, to find a sign both arbitrary and differential (102-3), which will support the renewed call for the displacement of the linearity of architectural and non-architectural writing. The notion of the trace, the fruit of the internal tensions of the two-fold character of the sign, provides the “finite and material element of a composition that takes on the shape of an architectural product,” in order to effect the displacement of linearity. (105) The play of the trace spaces, gives space, opens up the matrix of the khōra.
Vitale chooses to close with a framing of Glas, perhaps the most ‘architectural’ of Derrida’s works, and moreover, in Derrida’s words, one replete with traces, “traces of traces without tracing, or, if you wish, tracings that only track and retrace other texts.” (110) For Vitale the two columns in which the text of Glas is arrange, constitute architectural artifacts: “two columns that are erected and stand out on account of a supposed autonomy: the autonomy of the work, of the Book, granted by the signature of the author (subject, consciousness, etc.). In this case, Hegel’s work, on one side, and Genet’s work, on the other side. […] Glas consists in this frame that exposes what makes it possible: between the two columns, the clapper [battant] of another text, of another logic: spacing.” (107)
The implications of the making, the arrangement of scriptural space are catalytic for the ciphering and de-ciphering of the text. Moreover, the text itself will reinforce its architectural space, the way a stalactite becomes the support of the cavernous, mineral space that produced it. Vitale is observant: “Genet’s work, once inscribed within the frame of Glas, can no longer be entirely solved, absolved, detached from the act of absolute self-naming to which it aims. To realize/idealize itself as such, it cannot but go through the erection of a column of writing, and thus it must leave the traces of its finite and contingent passage.” (109) In this, reading Genet is constituted by Derrida as the anarchitecture that opposes Hegelian architectonics; the space between the two becomes the desired space of transarchitecture, a space between two architectures, two idioms, two tongues. If a kulindros designates the round body of a pyramid, an obelisk or a column, as much as a rolled manuscript or a scroll, Glas, working between its two columns, presents itself as a transversal writing, the most literal trans-script.
The integrated collection of essays that comprise The Last Fortress of Metaphysics would be strengthened if, rather than being their object, trans-scripturality was their constitutive mode of articulation. A second language would have to infect that of Derrida’s, the language of “the master of masters,” in Vitale’s acclaim. (viii) Adoration repays badly the master; if the master is to be followed, his performance must be performed anew. To perform anew in this instance would also require heeding the words of Derrida that Vitale is familiar with: “I am not happy with the concept of collage. I never use it as such. It is a traditional concept. Collage implies fragment, and that implies that there is a proper body the fragment belongs to.” (97) The collage that The Last Fortress is, troubles the reader less by the precariousness of its unity or its repetitiveness, as by the tempting promise of a proper textual body, a naked body in which the intricate and far-reaching interweaving of deconstruction and architecture is exposed in its plenitude. All the same, Vitale’s effort is a first step and as such a significant contribution to the labour required in appraising the lure of this promise.