Modernism, revisited (and chunked)
July 19, 2012 § Leave a comment
There can be no doubt that nowadays “modernism”,
due to a series of intensive waves of adoption and criticism, returning as echoes from unexpected grounds, is used as a label, as a symbol. It allows to induce, to claim or to disapprove conformity in previously unprecedented ways, it helps to create subjects, targets and borders. Nevertheless, it is still an unusual symbol, as it points to a complex history, in other words to a putative “bag” of culture(s). As a symbol, or label, “modernity” does not point to a distinct object, process or action. It invokes a concept that emerged through history and is still doing so. Even as a concept, it is a chimaera. Still unfolding from practice, it did not yet move completely into the realm of the transcendental, to join other concepts in the fields most distant from any objecthood.
Here, we continue the investigation of the issues raised by Koolhaas’ “Junkspace”. Our suggestion upon the first encounter has been that Koolhaas struggles himself with his attitude to modernism, despite he openly blames it for creating Junkspace. (Software as it is currently practiced is definitely part of it.) His writing bearing the same title thus gives just a proper list of effects and historical coincidences—nothing less, but also nothing more. Particularly, he provides no suggestions about how to find or construct a different entry point into the problematic field of “building urban environments”.
In this essay we will try to outline how a possible—and constructive—archaeology of modernism could look like, with a particular application to urbanism and/or architecture. The decisions about where to dig and what to build have been, of course, subjective. Of course, our equipment is, as almost always in archaeology, rather small, suitable for details, not for surface mining or the like. That is, our attempts are not directed towards any kind of completeness.
We will start by applying a structural perspective, which will yield the basic set of presuppositions that characterizes modernism. This will be followed by a discussion of four significant aspects, for which we will hopefully be able to demonstrate the way of modernist thinking. These four areas concern patterns and coherence, meaning, empiricism and machines. The third major section will deal with some aspects of contemporary “urbanism” and how Koolhaas relates to that, particularly with respect to his “Junkspace”. Note, however, that we will not perform a literary study of Koolhaas’ piece, as most of his subjects there can be easily deciphered on the basis of the arguments as we will show them in the first two sections.
The final section then comprises a (very) brief note about a possible future of urbanism, which actually, perhaps, already has been lifting off. We will provide just some very brief suggestions in order to not appear as (too) presumptuous.
Table of Content (active links)
- 1. A structural Perspective
- 2. Problems with Modernism
- 2.1. Dust, Coherence, Patterns
- 2.2. Meaning
- 2.3. Shades of Empiricism
- 2.4. Machines
- 3. Urbanism, and Koolhaas
- 4. Redesigning Urbanism
1. A structural Perspective
According to its heterogeneity, the usage of that symbol “modernity” is fuzzy as well. While the journal Modernism/modernity, published by John Hopkins University Press, concentrates „on the period extending roughly from 1860 to the mid-twentieth century,“ while galleries for “Modern Art” around the world consider the historical period since post-Renaissance (conceived as the period between 1400 to roughly 1900) up today, usually not distinguishing modernism from post-modernism.
In order to understand modernism we have to take the risk of proposing a structure behind the mere symbolical. Additionally, and accordingly, we should resist the abundant attempt to define a particular origin of it. Foucault called those historians who were addicted to the calendar and the idea of the origin, the originator, or more abstract the “cause”, “historians in short trousers” (meaning a particular intellectual infantilism, probably a certain disability to think abstractly enough) . History does not realize a final goal either, and similarly it is bare nonsense to claim that history came to an end. As in any other evolutionary process historical novelty builds on the leftover of preceding times.
After all, the usage of symbols and labels is a language game. It is precisely a modernist misunderstanding to dissect history into phases. Historical phases are not out there, or haven’t been there. It is by far more appropriate to conceive it as waves, yet not of objects or ideas, but of probabilities. So, the question is what happened in the 19th century that it became possible to objectify a particular wave? Is it possible to give any reasonable answer here?
Following Foucault, we may try to reconstruct the sediments that fell out from these waves like the cripples of sand in the shallow water on the beach. Foucault’s main invention put forward then in his “Archaeology”  is the concept of the “field of proposals”. This field is not 2-dimensional, it is high-dimensional, yet not of a stable dimensionality. In many respects, we could conceive it as a historian’s extension of the Form of Life as Wittgenstein used to call it. Later, Foucault would include the structure of power, its exertion and objectifications, the governmentality into this concept.
Starting with the question of power, we can see an assemblage that is typical for the 19th century and the latest phase of the 18th. The invention of popular rights, even the invention of the population as a conscious and a practiced idea, itself an outcome of the French revolution, is certainly key for any development since then. We may even say that its shockwaves and the only little less shocking echoes of these waves haunted us till the end of the 20th century. Underneath the French Revolution we find the claim of independence that traces back to the Renaissance, formed into philosophical arguments by Leibniz and Descartes. First, however, it brought the Bourgeois, a strange configuration of tradition and the claim of independence, bringing forth the idea of societal control as a transfer from the then emerging intensification of the idea of the machine. Still exhibiting class-consciousness, it was at the roots of the modernists rejection of tradition. Yet, even the Bourgeois builds on the French Revolution (of course) and the assignment of a strictly positive value to the concept of densification.
Without the political idea of the population, the positive value of densification, the counter-intuitive and prevailing co-existence of the ideas of independence and control neither the direction nor the success of the sciences and their utilization in the field of engineering could have been emerging as it actually did. Consequently, right to the end of the hot phase of French Revolution, it was argued by Foucroy in 1794 that it would be necessary to found a „Ecole Polytechnique“1. Densification, liberalism and engineering brought another novelty of this amazing century: the first spread of mass media, newspapers in that case, which have been theorized only approx. 100 years later.
The rejection of tradition as part of the answer to the question “What’s next?” is perhaps one of the strongest feelings for the modernist in the 19th century. It even led to considerable divergence of attitudes across domains within modernism. For instance, while the arts rejected realism as a style building on “true representation,” technoscience embraced it. Yet, despite the rejection of immediate visual representations in the arts, the strong emphasis on objecthood and apriori objectivity remained fully in charge. Think of Kandinsky’s “Punkt und Linie zu Fläche“ (1926), or the strong emphasis of pure color (Malevich), even of the idea of purity itself, then somewhat paradoxically called abstractness, or the ideas of the Bauhaus movement about the possibility and necessity to objectify rules of design based on dot, line, area, form, color, contrast etc.. The proponents of Bauhaus, even their contemporary successors in Weimar (and elsewhere) never understood that the claim for objectivity particularly in design is impossible to be satisfied, it is a categorical fault. Just to avoid a misunderstanding that itself would be a fault of the same category: I personally find Kandinsky’s work mostly quite appealing, as well as some of the work by the Bauhaus guys, yet for completely different reasons that he (they) might have been dreaming of.
Large parts of the arts rejected linearity, while technoscience took it as their core. Yet, such divergences are clearly the minority. In all domains, the rejection of tradition was based on an esteem of the idea of independence and resulted predominantly in the emphasis of finding new technical methods to produce unseen results. While the emphasis of the method definitely enhances the practice of engineering, it is not innocent either. Deleuze sharply rejects the saliency of methods :
Method is the means of that knowledge which regulates the collaboration of all the faculties. It is therefore the manifestation of a common sense or the realisation of a Cogitatio natura, […] (p.165)
Here, Deleuze does not condemn methods as such. Undeniably, it is helpful to explicate them, to erect a methodology, to symbolize them. Yet, culture should not be subordinated to methods, not even sub-cultures.
The leading technoscience of these days had been physics, closely followed by chemistry, if it is at all reasonable to separate the two. It brought the combustion engine (from Carnot to Daimler), electricity (from Faraday to Edison, Westinghouse and Tesla), the control of temperature (Kelvin, Boltzmann), the elevator, and consequently the first high-rise buildings along with a food industry. In the second half of 19th century it was fashionable for newspapers to maintain a section showing up the greatest advances and success of technoscience of the last week.
In my opinion it is eminently important to understand the linkage between the abstract ideas, growing from a social practice as their soil-like precursory condition, and the success of a particular kind of science. Independence, control, population on the one side, the molecule and its systematics, the steam and the combustion engine, electricity and the fridge on the other side. It was not energy (in the form of wood and coals) that could be distributed, electricity meant an open potential for an any of potential . Together they established a new Form of Life which nowadays could be called “modern,” despite the fact that its borders blur, if we could assume their existence at all. Together, combined into a cultural “brown bag,” these ingredients led to an acceleration, not to the least also due to the mere physical densification, an increase of the mere size of the population, produced (literally so) by advances in the physical and biomedical sciences.
At this point we should remind ourselves that factual success does neither legitimize to expect sustainable success nor to reason about any kind of universal legitimacy of the whole setup. The first figure would represent simply naivety, the second the natural fallacy, which seduces us to conclude from the actual (“what is”) to the deontical and the normative (“what should be”).
As a practice, the modern condition is itself dependent on a set of beliefs. These can neither be questioned nor discussed at all from within the “modern attitude,” of course. Precisely this circumstance makes it so difficult to talk with modernists about their beliefs. They are not only structurally invisible, something like a belief is almost categorically excluded qua their set of conditioning beliefs. Once accepted, these conditions can’t be accessed anymore, they are transcendental to any further argument put forward within the area claimed by these conditions. For philosophers, this figure of thought, the transcendental condition, takes the role of a basic technique. Other people like urbanists and architects might well be much less familiar with it, which could explain their struggling with theory.
What are these beliefs to which a proper modernist adheres to? My list would look like as that given below. The list itself is, of course, neither a valuation nor an evaluation.
- – independence, ultimately taken as a metaphysical principle;
- – belief in the primacy of identity against the difference, leading to the primacy of objects against the relation;
- – linearity, additivity and reduction as the method of choice;
- – analyticity and “lawfulness” for descriptions of the external world;
- – belief in positively definable universals, hence, the rejection of belief as a sustaining mental figure;
- – the belief in the possibility of a finally undeniable justification;
- – belief that the structure of the world follows a bi-valent logic2, represented by the principle of objective causality, hence also a “logification” and “physicalization” of the concept of information as well as meaning; consequently, meaning is conceived as being attached to objects;
- – the claim of a primacy of ontology and existential claims—as highlighted by the question “What is …?”—over instances of pragmatics that respect Forms of Life—characterized by the question “How to use …?”;
- – logical “flatness” and the denial of creativity of material arrangements; representation
- – belief in the universal arbitrariness of evolution;
- – belief in the divine creator or some replacement, like the independent existence of ideas (here the circle closes).
It now becomes even more clear that is not quite reasonable to assign a birth date to modernism. Some of those ideas and beliefs haven been around for centuries before their assembly into the 19th century habit. Such, modernism is nothing more, yet also nothing less than a name for the evolutionary history of a particular arrangement of attitudes, believes and arguments.
From this perspective it also becomes clear why it is somewhat difficult to separate so-called post-modernism from modernism. Post-modernism takes a yet undecided position to the issue of abstract metaphysical independence. Independence and the awareness for the relations did not amalgamate yet, both are still, well, independent in post-modernism. It makes a huge, if not to say cosmogonic difference to set the relation as the primary metaphysical element. Of course, Foucault was completely right in rejecting the label of being a post-modernist. Foucault dropped the central element of modernism—independence—completely, and very early in his career as author, thinking about the human world as horizontal (actual) and vertical (differential) embeddings. The same is obviously true for Deleuze, or Serres. Less for Lyotard and Latour, and definitely not for Derrida, who practices a schizo-modernism, undulating between independence and relation. Deleuze and Foucault never have been modern, in order to paraphrase Latour, and it would be a serious misunderstanding to attach the label of post-modernism to their oeuvre.
As a historical fact we may summarize modernism by two main achievements: first, the professionalization of engineering and its rhizomatically pervasive implementation, and second the mediatization of society, first through the utilization of mass media, then by means of the world wide web. Another issue is that many people confess to follow it as if they would follow a program, turning it into a movement. And it is here where difficulties start.
2. Problems with Modernism
We are now going to deal with some of the problems that are necessarily associated to the belief set that is so typical for modernism. In some way or another, any basic belief is burdened by its own specific difficulties. There is no universal or absolute way out of that. Yet, modernism is not just an attitude, up to now it also has turned into a large-scale societal experiment. Hence, there are not only some empirical facts, we also meet impacts onto the life of human beings (before any considerations of moral aspects). Actually, Koolhaas provided precisely a description of them in his “Junkspace” . Perhaps, modernism is also more prone to the strong polarity of positive and negative outcomes, as its underlying set of believes is also particularly strong. But this is, of course, only a quite weak suggestion.
In this section we will investigate four significant aspects. Together they hopefully provide kind of a fingerprint of “typical” modernist thinking—and its failure. These four areas concern patterns and coherence, empiricism, meaning and machines.
Before we start with that I would like to visit briefly the issue raised by the role of objects in modernism. The metaphysics of objects in modernism is closely related to the metaphysical belief of independence as a general principle. If you start to think “independence” you necessarily end up with separated objects. “Things” as negotiated entities do barely exist in modernism, and if so, then only as kind of a error-prone social and preliminary approximation to the physical setup. It is else not possible, to balance objects and relations as concepts. One of them must take the primary role.
Setting objects as primary against the relation has a range of problematic consequences. In my opinion, these consequences are inevitable. It is important that neither the underlying beliefs nor their consequences can’t be separated from each other. For a modernist, it is impossible, to drop one of these and to keep the other ones without stepping into the tomb of internal inconsistency!
The idea of independence, whether in its implicit or its explicit version, can be traced back at least to scholastics, probably even to the classic where it appeared as Platonic idealism (albeit this would be an oversimplification). To its full extent it unfolded through the first golden age of the dogma of the machine in the early 17th century, e.g. in the work of Harvey or the philosophy of Descartes. Leibniz recognized its difficulties. For him perception is an activity. If objects would be conceived as purely passive, they would not be able to perceive and not to build any relation at all. Thus, the world can’t be made of objects, since there is a world external to the human mind. He remained, however, being caught by theism, which brought him to the concept of monads as well as to the concept of the infinitesimal numbers. The concept of the monads should not be underestimated, though. Ultimately, they serve the purpose of immaterial elements that bear the ability to perceive and to transfer them to actual bodies, whether stuffed with a mind or not.
The following centuries brought just a tremendous technical refinement of Cartesian philosophy, despite there have been phases where people resisted its ideas, as for instance many people in the Baroque.
Setting objects as primary against the relation is at the core of phenomenology as well, and also, though in a more abstract version, of idealism. Husserl came up with the idea of the “phenomenon”, that impresses us, notably directly, or intuitively, without any interpretation. Similarly, the Kantian “Erhabenheit”, then tapered by Romanticism, is out there as an independent instance, before any reason or perception may start to work.
2.1. Dust, Coherence, Patterns
When interpreted as a natural principle, or as a principle of nature, the idea of independence provokes and supports physical sciences. Independence matches perfectly with physics, yet it is also an almost perfect mismatch for biological sciences as far as they are not reducible to physics. The same is true for social sciences. Far from being able to recognize their own conditionability, most sociologist just practice methods taken more or less directly from physics. Just recall their strange addiction to statistics, which is nothing else than methodology of independence. Instead of asking for the abstract and factual genealogy of the difference between independence and coherence, between the molecule and harmony, they dropped any primacy of the relation, even its mere possibility.
The effects in architecture are well-known. On the one hand, modernism led to an industrialization, which is reaching its final heights in the parametrism of Schumacher and Hadid, among others. Yet, by no means there is any necessity that industrialization leads to parametrism! On the other hand, if in the realm of concepts there is no such thing as a primacy of relation, only dust, then there is also no form, only function, or at least a maximized reduction of any form, as it has been presented first by Mies von der Rohe. The modularity in this ideology of the absence of form is not that of living organisms, it is that of crystals. Not only the Seagram building is looking exactly like the structural model of sodium chloride. Of course, it represents a certain radicality. Note that it doesn’t matter whether the elementary cells of the crystal follows straight lines, or whether there is some curvature in their arrangements. Strange enough, for a modernist there is never a particular intention in producing such stuff. Intentions are not needed at all, if the objects bear the meaning. The modernists expectation is that everything the human mind can accomplish under such conditions is just uncovering the truth. Crystals just happen to be there, whether in modernist architecture or in the physico-chemistry of minerals.
Strictly spoken, it is deeply non-modern, perhaps ex-modern, to investigate the question why even modernists feel something like the following structures or processes mysteriously (not: mystical!) beautiful, or at least interesting. Well, I do not know, of course, whether they indeed felt like that, or whether they just pretended to do so. At least they said so… Here are the artefacts3:
These structures are neither natural nor geometrical. Their common structural trait is the local instantiation of a mechanism, that is, a strong dependence on the temporal and spatial local context: Subdivision in case (a), and a probabilistically instantiated set of “chemical” reactions in the case of (b). For the modernist mindset they are simply annoying. They are there, but there is no analytical tool available to describe them as “object” or to describe their genesis. Yet, both examples do not show “objects” with perceivable properties that would be well-defined for the whole entity. Rather, they represent a particular temporal cut in the history of a process. Without considering their history—which includes the contingent unfolding of their deep structure—they remain completely incomprehensible, despite the fact that on the microscopical level they are well-defined, even deterministic.
From the perspective of primary objects they are separated from comprehensibility by the chasm of idealism, or should we say hyper-idealistic conditioning? Yet, for both there exists a set of precise mathematical rules. The difference to machines is just that these rules describe mechanisms, but not anything like the shape or on the level of the entirety. The effect of these mechanism on the level of the collective, however, can’t be described by those rules for the mechanism. They can’t be described at all by any kind of analytical approach, as it possible for instance in many areas in physics and, consequently in engineering, which so far is by definition always engaged in building and maintaining fully determinate machines. This notion of the mechanism, including the fact that only the concept of mechanism allows for a thinking that is capable to comprehend emergence and complexity—and philosophically potential—, is maybe one of the strongest differences between modernist thinking and “organicist” thinking (which has absolutely nothing to do with bubble architecture), as we may call it in a preliminarily.
Here it is probably appropriate to cite the largely undervalued work of Charles Jencks, who proposed as one of the first in the domain of architecture/urbanism the turn to complexity. Yet, since he had not a well-explicated formulation (based on an appropriate elementarization) at his disposal, we had neither been able to bring his theory “down to earth” nor to connect it to more abstract concepts. People like Jencks, Venturi, “parts of” Koolhaas (and me:)—or Deleuze or Foucault in philosophy—never have been modernist. Except the historical fact that they live(d) in a period that followed the blossoming of modernism, there is not any other justification to call them or their thinking “post-modern”. It is not the use of clear arguments that those reject, it is the underlying set of beliefs.
In modernism, that is, in the practice of the belief set as shown above, collective effects are excluded apriori, metaphysically as well as methodologically, as we will see. Statistics is by definition not able to detect “patterns”. It is an analytic technique, of which people believe that its application excludes any construction. This is of course a misbelief, the constructive steps are just shifted into the side-conditions of the formulas, resulting in a deep methodological subjectivity concerning the choice of a particular technique, or formula respectively.
This affects the perspective onto society as well as individual perception and thought. Slightly metaphorically spoken, everything is believed to be (conceptual) dust, and to remain dust. The belief in independence, fired perhaps by a latent skepticism since Descartes, has invaded the methods and the practices. At most, such the belief, one could find different kinds of dust, or different sizes of the hives of dust, governed by a time-inert, universal law. In turn, wherever laws are imposed to “nature”, the subject matter turns into conceptual dust.
Something like a Language Game, let it even be in combination with transcendental conditionability, must almost be incomprehensible for a modernist. I think they even do not see there possibility. While analytic philosophy is largely the philosophy that developed within modernism (one might say that it is thus not philosophy at all), the philosophical stances of Wittgenstein, Heidegger or Deleuze are outside of it. The instances of misunderstanding Wittgenstein as a positivist are countless! Closely related to the neglect of collective effects is the dismissal of the inherent value of the comparative approach. Again, that’s not an accusation. Its just the description of an effect that emerges as soon as the above belief set turns into a practice.
The problem with modernism is indeed tricky. On the one hand it blossomed engineering. Engineering, as it has been conceived since then, is a strictly modernist endeavor. With regard to the physical aspects of the world it works quite well, of course. In any other area, it is doomed to fail, for the very same reasons, unfortunately. Engineering of informational aspects is thus impossible as it is the engineering of architecture or the engineering of machine-based episteme, not to mention the attempt to enable machines to deal with language. Or to deal with the challenges emerging in the urban culture. Just to avoid misunderstandings: Engineering is helpful to find technical realizations for putative solutions, but it never can deliver any kind of solution itself, except the effect that people assimilate and re-shape the produces of urban engineering through their usage, turning them into something different than intended.
The most problematic effects of the idea of “primary objects” are probably the following:
- – the rejection of creational power of unconscious or even purely material entities;
- – the idea that meaning can be attached to objects;
- – the idea that objects can be represented and must be represented by ideas.
These strong consequences do not concern just epistemological issues. In modernism, “objectivity” has nothing to do with the realm of the social. It can be justified universally and on purely formal grounds. We already mentioned that this may work in large parts of physics—it is challenged in quantum physics—but certainly not in most biological or social domains.
In his investigation of thought, Deleuze identifies representationalism (, p.167) as one of the eight major presuppositions of large parts of philosophy, especially idealism in the line from Platon, Hegel, and Frege up to Carnap.
(1) the postulate of the principle, or the Cogitatio natura universalis (good will of the thinker and good nature of thought); (2) the postulate of the ideal, or common sense (common sense as the concordia facultatum and good sense as the distribution which guarantees this concord); (3) the postulate of the model, or of recognition (recognition inviting all the faculties to exercise themselves upon an object supposedly the same, and the consequent possibility of error in the distribution when one faculty confuses one of its objects with a different object of another faculty); (4) the postulate of the element, or of representation (when difference is subordinated to the complementary dimensions of the Same and the Similar, the Analogous and the Opposed); (5) the postulate of the negative, or of error (in which error expresses everything which can go wrong in thought, but only as the product of external mechanisms); (6) the postulate of logical function, or the proposition (designation is taken to be the locus of truth, sense being no more than the neutralised double or the infinite doubling of the proposition); (7) the postulate of modality, or solutions (problems being materially traced from propositions or, indeed, formally defined by the possibility of their being solved); (8) the postulate of the end, or result, the postulate of knowledge (the subordination of learning to knowledge, and of culture to method). Together they form the dogmatic image of thought.
Deleuze by no means attacks the utility of these elements in principle. His point is just that these elements work together and should not be taken as primary principles. The effect of these presuppositions are disastrous.
They crush thought under an image which is that of the Same and the Similar in representation, but profoundly betrays what it means to think and alienates the two powers of difference and repetition, of philosophical commencement and recommencement. The thought which is born in thought, the act of thinking which is neither given by innateness nor presupposed by reminiscence but engendered in its genitality, is a thought without image.
As engineer, you may probably have been noticing issue (5). Elsewhere in our essay we already dealt with the fundamental misconception to start from an expected norm, instead from an open scale without imposed values. Only the latter attitude will allow for inherent adaptivity. Adaptive systems never will fail, because failure is conceptually impossible. Instead, they will cease to exist.
The rejection of the negative, which includes the rejection of the opposite as well as dialectics, the norm, or the exception, is particularly important if we think about foundations of whatsoever (think about Hegel, Marx, attac, etc.) or about political implications. We already discussed the case of Agamben.
Deleuze finally will arrive at this “new imageless image of thought” by understanding difference as a transcendental category. The great advantage of this move is that it does not imply a necessity of symbols and operators as primary, as it is the case if we would take identity as primary. The primary identical is either empty (a=a), that is, without any significance for the relation between entities, or it needs symbolification and at least one operator. In practice, however, a whole battery of models, classifications and the assumptions underlying them is required to support the claim of identity. As these assumptions are not justifiable within the claim of identity itself, they must be set, which results in the attempt to define the world. Obviously, attempting so would be quite problematic. It is even self-contradicting if contrasted with the modernists claim of objectivity. Setting the difference as primary, Deleuze not only avoids the trap of identity and pre-established harmony in the hive of objects, but also subordinates the object to the relation. Here he meets with Wittgenstein and Heidegger.
Together, the presupposition of identity and objecthood is necessarily and in a bidirectional manner accompanied with another quite abundant misunderstanding, according to which logic should be directly applicable to the world. World here is of course “everything” except logic, that is (claimed) objects, their relations, measurement, ideas, concepts and so on. Analytic philosophy, positivism, external realism and the larger movement of modernism all apply the concept of bi-valent logic to empirical entities. It is not really a surprise that this leads to serious problems and paradoxa, which however are pseudo-paradoxa. For instance, universal justification requires knowledge. Without logical truity in knowledge universal justification can’t be achieved. The attempt to define knowledge as consisting of positive content failed, though. Next, the formula of “knowledge as justified belief” was proposed. In order not to fall prey to the Gettier-problem, belief itself would have to be objectified. Precisely this happened in analytic philosophy, when Alchourron et al. (1985) published their dramatically (and overly) reduced operationalization of “belief”. Logic is a condition, it is transcendental to its usage. Hence, it is inevitable to instantiate it. By means of instantiation, however, semantics invades equally inevitable.
Ultimately due to the presupposed primacy of identity, modernists are faced with a particular difficulty in dealing with relations. Objects and their role should not be dependent on their interpretation. As a necessary consequence, meaning—and information—must be attached to objects as quasi-physical properties. There is but one single consequence: tyranny. Again, it is not surprising that at the heights of modernism the bureaucratic tyranny was established several times.
Some modernists would probably allow for interpretation. Yet, only as a means, not as a condition, not as a primacy. Concerning their implications, the difference between the stances is a huge one. If you take it simply as a means, keeping the belief into the primacy of objects, you still would adhere to the idea of “absolute truth” within the physical world. Ultimately, interpretation would be degraded into an error-prone “method”, which ideally should have no influence onto the recognition of truth, of course. The world, at least the world that goes beyond the mere physical aspects, appears as a completely different one if relations, and thus interpretation is set as primary. Obviously, this implies also a categorical difference regarding the way one approaches that world, e.g. in science, or the way one conceives of the possible role of design. Is a nothing else than myth that a designer, architect, or urbanist designs objects. The practitioners in these professions design potentials, namely that for the construction of meaning by the future users and inhabitants (cf. ). There is nothing a designer can do to prevent a particular interpretation or usage. Koolhaas concludes that regarding Junkspace this may lead to a trap, or kind of a betrayal :
Narrative reflexes that have enabled us from the beginning of time to connect dots, fill in blanks, are now turned against us: we cannot stop noticing—no sequence is too absurd, trivial, meaningless, insulting… Through our ancient evolutionary equipment, our irrepressible attention span, we helplessly register, provide insight, squeeze meaning, read intention; we cannot stop making sense out of the utterly senseless… (p.188)
I think that on the one hand Koolhaas here accepts the role of interpretation, yet, and somewhat contradictory, he is not able to recognize that it is precisely the primacy of interpretation that enables for an transformation through assimilation, hence the way out of Junkspace. Here he remains modernist to the full extent.
The deep reason being that for the object-based attitude there is no possibility at all to recognize non-representational coherence. (Thus, a certain type of illiteracy regarding complex texts is prevailing among “true” modernists…)
2.3. Shades of Empiricism
Science, as we understand it today—yet at least partially also as we practice it—is based on the so-called hypothetico-deductive approach of empiricism (cf. ). Science is still taken as a synonym for physics by many, even in philosophy of science, with only very few exceptions. There, the practice and the theory of Life sciences are not only severely underrepresented, quite frequently biology is still reduced to physics. Physicists, and their philosophical co-workers, often claim that the whole world can be reduced to a description in terms of quantum mechanics (among many others cf. ). A closely related reduction, only slightly less problematic, is given by the materialist’s claim that mental phenomena should be explained completely in biological terms, that is, using only biological concepts.
The belief in empiricism is implemented into the methodological framework that is called “statistics”. The vast majority of the statistical tests rest on the assumption that observations and variables are independent from each other. Some tests are devised to test for independence, or dependence, but this alone does not help much. Usually, if dependency is detected, then the subsequent tests are rearranged as to fit again the independence assumption. In other words, any possibly actual coherence is first assumed to be nonexistent. By means of the method itself, the coherence is indeed destroyed. Yet, once it is destroyed, you never will get it back. It is quite simple: The criteria for any such construction are just missing.
From this perspective, statistics is not scientific according to science’s own measures; due to its declared non-critical and non-experimental stance it actually looks more like ideology. For a scientific method would perform an experiment for testing whether something could be assumed or not. As Nobel laureate Konrad Lorenz said: I never needed statistics to do my work. What would be needed instead is indeed a method that is structurally independent of any independence assumption regarding the observed data. Such a method would propose patterns if there are sufficiently dense hints, and not , otherwise. Without proposing one or the other apriori. From that perspective, it is more the representationalism in modernism that brings the problem.
This framework of statistics is far from being homogeneous, though. Several “interpretations” are fiercely discussed: frequentism, bayesianism, uncertainty, or propensity. Yet, any of them faces serious internal inconsistencies, as Alan Hajek convincingly demonstrated . To make a long story short (the long version you can find over here), it is not possible to build a model without symbols, without concepts that require interpretation and further models, and outside a social practice, or without an embedding into such. Modernists usually reject such basics and eagerly claim even universal objectivity for their data (hives of dust). More than 50 years ago, Quine proofed that believing otherwise should be taken just as nothing else than a dogma . This dogma can be conceived as a consequence of the belief that objects that are the primary constituents of the world.
Of course, the social embedding is especially important in the case of social affairs such like urbanism. The claim that any measurement of data then treated by statistical modeling (they call it wrongly “analysis”) could convey any insight per se is nothing but pretentious.
Dealing with data always results in some kind of construction, base don some methods. Methods, however, respond differentially to data, they filter. In other words, even applying “analytical” methods involves interpretation, often even a strong one. Unfortunately for the modernist, he excluded the possibility of the primacy of interpretation at all, because there are only objects out there. This hurdle is quickly solved, of course, by the belief that the meaning is outside of interpretation. As result, they believe, that there is a necessary progress towards the truth. For modernists: Here you may jump back to subsection 3.2. …
For le Corbusier a house is much like a “machine for living in”. According to him, a building has clear functions, that could be ascribed apriori, governed by universal relations, or even laws. Recently, people engaged in the building economy recognized that it may turn problematic to assign a function apriori, as it simply limits the sales arguments. As a result, any function from the building as well as from the architecture itself tends to be stripped away. The “solution” is a more general one. Yet, in contrast to an algebraic equation that will be instantiated before used, the building actually exists after building it. It is there. And up today, not in a reconfigurable form.
Actually, the problem is created not by the tendency for more general, or even pre-specific solutions. It turns critical if it generality amalgamates with the modernist attitude. The category of machines, which is synonymic to ascribing or assigning a function (understood as usage) apriori, doesn’t accept any reference to luxury. A machine that would contain properties or elements that don’t bear any function, at least temporarily, other than pleasure (which does not exist in a world that consists only of objects) would be badly built. Minimalism is not just a duty, it even belongs to the grammar of modernism. Minimalism is the actualization and representation of mathematical rigidity, which is also a necessity as it is the only way to use signs without interpretation. At least, that is the belief of modernists.
The problem with minimalism is that it effectively excludes evolution. Either the produce fits perfectly or not at all. Perfectness of the match can be expected only, if the user behaves exactly as expected, which represents nothing else than dogmatism, if not worse. Minimalism in form excludes alternative interpretations and usages, deliberately so, it even has to exclude the possibility for the alternative. How else to get rid of alternatives? Koolhaas rightly got it: by nothingness (minimalism), or by chaos.
3. Urbanism, and Koolhaas.
First, we have of course to make clear that we will be able to provide only a glimpse to the field invoked by this header. Else, our attempts here should not be understood as a proposal to separate architecture from urbanism. Both, regarding theory and implementation they more and more overlap. When Koolhaas explains the special situation of the Casa do Musica in Porto, he refers to processes like continuation of certain properties and impressions from the surround to be continued inside of the building. Inversely, any building, even any persistent object in a city shifts the qualities of its urban surround.
Rem Koolhaas, once journalist, then architect, now for more than a decade additionally someone doing comparative studies on cities has performatively demonstrated—by means of his writings such as “S,M,L,XL”, “Generic City” or “Junkspace”—that a serious engagement about the city can’t be practiced as a disciplinary endeavor. Human culture moved irrevocably into a phase where culture largely means urban culture. Urbanists may be seen as a vanishing species that became impossible due to the generality of the field. “Culturalist” is neither a proper domain nor a suitable label. Or perhaps they moult into organizers of research in urban contexts, similarly as architects are largely organizers for creating buildings. Yet, there is an important difference: Architects may still believe that they externalize something. Such a belief is impossible for urbanists, because they are part of the culture. It is thus questionable, if a project like the “Future Cities Laboratory” should indeed be called such. It is perhaps only possible to do so in Singapore, but that’s the subject of one of the next essays.
Rem Koolhaas wrote “Delirious New York” before turning to architecture and urbanism as a practitioner. There, he praised its diversity and manifoldness that, in or by means of his dreams, added up to the deliriousness of Manhattan, and probably also of his own.
Without any doubt, the particular quality of Manhattan is its empowering density, which is not actualizing as the identical, but rather as heterotopia, as divergence. In some way, Manhattan may be conceived as the urban precursor of the internet , built first in steel, glass and concrete. Vera Bühlmann writes:
Manhattan space is, if not yet everywhere, so at least in the internet potentially everywhere, and additionally not limited to three, probably even spatial dimensions.4
Urbanism is in urgent demand of an advanced theory that refers to the power of networks. It was perhaps this “network process” that brought Koolhaas to explore the anti-thesis of the wall and the plane, the absolute horizontal and vertical separation. I say anti-thesis, because Delirious New York itself behaves quite ambiguously, half-way between the Hegelian, (post-)structuralist dialectics and utopia on the one side and an affirmation of heterotopias on the other hand as a more advanced level of conceptualization alienating processes, which always are also processes of selection and individuation into both directions, the medium and the “individual”. Earlier scholars like Aldo Rossi have been too early to go into that direction as networks weren’t recognizable as part of the Form of Life. Even Shane is only implicitly referring to their associative power (he does not refer to complexity as well). And Koolhaas was not either, and probably is still not aware of this problematics.
Recently, I have been proposing one of the possible approaches to build such a theory, the according concepts, terms and practices (for more details see ). It is rather important, to distinguish two very basic forms of networks, logistic and associative networks. Logistic networks are used everywhere in modernist reasoning about cities and culture. Yet, they exclusively refer to the network as a machine, suitable to optimize the transport of anything. Associative networks are completely different. They do not transfer anything, they swallow, assimilate, rearrange, associate and, above all, they learn. Any associative network can learn anything. The challenge is, particularly for modernist attitudes, that it can’t be controlled what exactly an associative network is going to learn. The interesting thing about it is that the concept of associative networks provides a bridge to the area of advanced “machine”-learning and to the Actor-Network-Theory (ANTH) of Bruno Latour. The main contribution of ANTH is its emphasis of agency, even of those mostly mineral material arrangements that are usually believed to have no mental capacity.
It is clear, that an associative network may not be perceived at all under the strictly practiced presupposition of independence, as it is typical for modernism. Upon its implementation, the belief set of modernism tends to destroy the associativity, hence also the almost inevitable associations between the more or less mentally equipped actors in urban environments.
When applied to cities, it breaks up relations, deliberately. Any interaction of high-rise buildings, so typical for Manhattan, is precluded intentionally. Any transfer is optimized just along one single parameter: time, and secondarily, space as a resource. Note that optimization always requires the apriori definition of a single function. As soon as would allow for multiple goals, you would be faced with the necessity of weighting and assigning subjective expectations, which are subjective precisely due to the necessity of interpretation. In order to exclude even the possibility for it, modernists agree hastily to optimize time (as a resource under the assignment of scarcity and physicality), once being understood as a transcendental condition.
As Aldo Rossi remarked already in the 1960ies , the modernist tries to evacuate any presence of time from the city. It is not just that history is cut off and buried, largely under false premises and wrong conclusions, reducing history just to institutional traditions (remember, there is no interpretation for a modernist!). In some way, it would have been even easy to predict Koolhaas’ Junkspace already in the end of the 19th century. Well, the Futurologists did it, semi-paradoxically, though. Quite stringent, Futurism was only a short phase within modernism. This neglect of time in modernism is by no means a “value” or an intention. It is a direct logical consequence of the presupposed belief set, particularly independence, logification and the implied neglect of context.
Dis-assembling the associative networks of a city results inevitably in the modernist urban conceptual dust, ruled by the paradigm of scarce time and the blindness against interpretation, patterns and non-representational coherence. This is in a nutshell, what I would like to propose as the deep grammar of the Junkspace, as it has been described by Koolhaas. Modernism did nothing else than to build and to actualize it conceptual dust. We may call it tertiary chaos, which has been—in its primary form—equal to the initial state of indiscernability concerning the cosmos as a whole. Yet, this time it has been dictated by modernists. Tertiary chaos thus can be set equal to the attempt to make any condition for the possibility of discernability vanishing.
Modernists may not be aware that there is not only already a theory of discernability, which equals to the Peircean theory of the sign, there is also an adaptation and application to urbanism and architecture. Urbanists probably may know about the name “Venturi”, but I seriously doubt that semiotics is on their radar. If modernists talk about semiotics at all, they usually refer to the structuralist caricature of it, as it has been put forward by de Saussure, establishing a closed version of the sign as a “triangle”. Peircean signs—and these have been used by Venturi—establish as an interpretive situation. They do not refer to objects, but just to other signs. Their reference to the world is provided through instances of abstract models and a process of symbolification, which includes learning as an ability that precedes knowledge. (more detail here in this earlier essay) Unfortunately, Venturi’s concept have scarcely been updated, except perhaps in the context of media facades . Yet, media facades are mostly and often vastly misunderstood as the possibility to display adverts. There are good arguments supporting the view that there is more about them .
Modernists, including Koolhaas employ a strange image of evolution. For him (them), evolution is pure arbitrariness, both regarding the observable entities and processes as well as regarding the future development. He supposes to detect “zero loyalty-and zero tolerance-toward configuration“ ( p.182). In the same passage he simultaneously and contradictory misses the „”original” condition“ and blames history for its corruptive influence: „History corrupts, absolute history corrupts absolutely.“ All of that is put into the context of a supposedly “”permanent evolution.”“ (his quot. marks). Most remarkably, even biologists as S.J. Gould, pretending to be evolutionary biologist, claims that evolution is absolutely arbitrary. Well, the only way out of the contrasting fact that there is life in the form we know about it is to assume some active divine involvement. Precisely this was the stance of Gould. People like Gould(and perhaps Koolhaas) commit the representationalist fault, which excludes them from recognizing (i) the structural tendency of any evolution towards more general solutions, and (ii) the there is an evolution of evolutionarity. The modernist attitude towards evolution can again be traced back to the belief into metaphysical independence of objects, but our interest here is different.
Understanding evolution as a concept has only little to do with biology and the biological model that is called “natural evolution”. Natural evolution is just an instance of evolution into physico-chemical and then biological matter. Bergson has been the first who addressed evolution as a concept , notably in the context of abstract memory. In a previous essay we formalized that approach and related it to biology and machine-learning. At its basics, it requires a strict non-representational approach. Species and organisms are expressed in terms of probability. Our conclusion was that in a physical world evolution inevitably takes place if there at least two different kinds or scales of memory. Only on that abstract level we can adopt the concept of evolution into urbanism, that is, into any cultural context.
Memory can’t be equated to tradition, institutions or even the concrete left-overs of history, of course. They are just instances of memory. It is of utmost importance here, not to contaminate the concept of memory again with representationalism. This memory is constructive. Memory that is not constructive, is not memory, but a stock, a warehouse (although these are also kinds of storage and contribute as such to memory). Memory is inherently active and associative. Such memory is the basic, non-representative element of a generally applicable evolutionary theory.
Memory can not be “deposited” into almost geological layers of sediments, quite in contrast to the suggestions of Eisenman, whom Rajchman follows closely in his “Constructions”.
The claim of “storable memory” is even more disastrous than the the claim that information could be stored. These are not objects and items that are independent of an interpretation, they are the processes of constructive of guided interpretation. Both “storages” would only become equal to the respective immaterial processes under the condition of a strictly deterministic set of commands. Even the concept of the “rule” is already too open to serve the modernist claim of storable memory.
It is immediately clear that the dynamic concept of memory is highly relevant for any theory about urban conditions. It provides a general language to derive particular models and instances of association, stocks and flows, that are not reducible to storage or transfers. We may even expect that whenever we meet kind of material storage in an urban context, we also should expect association. The only condition for that just being that there are no modernists around… Yet, storage without memory, that is, without activity remains dead, much like but even less than a crystal. Cripples in the sand. The real relevance of stocks and flows is visible only in the realm of the non-representational, the non-material, if we conceive it as waves in abstract density, that is as media, conveying the potential for activity as a differential. Physicalists and modernists like Christianse or Hillier will never understand that. Just think of the naïve empirics, calling it cartography, they are performing around the world.
This includes deconstructivism as well. Derrida’s deconstructivism can be read as a defense war against the symbolification of the new, the emerging, the complex, the paradox of sense. His main weapon is the “trail”, of which he explicitly states that it could not be interpreted at all. Such, Derrida as master of logical flatness and modernist dust is the real enemy of progress. Peter Sloterdijk, the prominent contemporary German “philosopher”5, once called Derrida the “Old Egyptian”. Nothing would fit better to Derrida, who lives in the realm of shadows and for whom life is just a short transitory phase, hopefully “survived” without too much injuries. The only metaphor being possible on that basis is titanic geology. Think of some of Eisenman’s or Libeskind’s works.
a: Peter Eisenman, Aronoff Center for Design and Art in Cincinnati (Ohio) (taken from ); the parts of building are treated blocks, whose dislocation reminds to that of geological sediments (or the work of titans).
Here we finish our exploration of generic aspects of the structure of modernist thinking. Hopefully, the sections so far are sufficiently suited to provide some insights about modernism in general, and the struggles Koolhaas is fighting with in “Junkspace”.
4. Redesigning Urbanism
Redesigning urbanism, that is to unlock it from modernist phantasms is probably much more simple than it may look at first sight. Well, not exactly simple, at least for modernists. Everything is about the presuppositions. Dropping the metaphysical believe of independence without getting trapped by esotericism or mysticism might well be the cure.Of course, metaphysical independence need to be removed from any level and any aspect in urbanism, starting from the necessary empirical work, which of course is already an important part of the construction work. We already mentioned that the notion of “empirical analysis” pretends neutrality, objectivity (as independence from the author) and validity. Yet, this is pure illusion. Independence should be abandoned also in its form of searching for originality or uniqueness, trying to set an unconditional mark in the cityscape. By that we don’t refer to morphing software, of course.
The antidote against isolationism, analyticity and logic is already well-known. To provide coherence you have to defy splintering and abjure the believe in (conceptual) dust. The candidate tool for it is story-telling, albeit in a non-representational manner, respecting the difference and heterotopias from the beginning. In turn this also means to abandon utopias and a-topias, but to embrace complexity and a deep concept of prevailing differentiation (in a subsequent essay we will deal with that). As citizens, we are not interested in non-places and deserts of spasmodic uniqueness (anymore) or the mere “solution of problems” either (see Deleuze about the dogmatic image of thought as cited above). Changing the perspective from the primacy of analysis to the primacy story-telling immediately reveals the full complexity of the respective Form of Life, to which we refer here as a respectful philosophical concept.
It is probably pretentious to speak such about urbanism as a totality. There are of course, and always have been, people who engaged in the urban condition based on a completely different set of believes, righteous non-modern. Those people start with the pattern and never tear them apart. Those people are able to distinguish structure, genesis and appearance. In biology, this distinction has been instantiated into the perspectives of the genotype, the phenotype, and, in bio-slang, evo-devo, the compound made from development, growth and evolution. These are tied together (necessarily) by complexity. In philosophy, the respective concepts are immanence, the differential, and the virtual.
For urbanism, take for instance the work of David Shane (“Recombinant Urbanism“). Shane’s work, which draws much on Kelly’s, is a (very) good starting point not only for any further theoretical work, but also for practical work.
As a practitioner, one has to defy the seduction for the totality of a master plan, as the renowned parametricists actualize in Istanbul, Christianse and his office did recently in Zürich at the main station. Both are producing pure awfulness, castles of functional uniformity, because they express the totality of the approach even visually. Even in Singapore’s URA (Urban Development Authority), the master plan has been relativised in favor of a (slightly) more open conceptualization. Designer’s have to learn that not less is more, but rather that partial nothingness is more. Deliberately non-planning, as Koolhaas has repeatedly emphasized. This should not be taken representationally, of course. It does not make any sense to grow “raw nature”, jungles within the city, neither for the city, nor for the “jungle”. Before a crystal can provide soil for real life, it must decay, precisely because it is a closed system (see next figure 3). Adaptive systems replace parts, melt holes to build structures, without decaying at all. We will return to this aspect of differentiation in a later article.
The main question for finding a practicable process therefore is: How to ask, which questions should we address in order to build an analytics under the umbrella of story-telling, that avoids the shortfalls of modernism?
We might again take a look to biology (as a science). As urbanism, biology is also confronted with a totality. We call it life. How to address reasonable, that is fruitful questions to that totality? Biology already found a set of answer, which nevertheless are not respected by the modernist version of this science, mainly expressed as genetics. The first insight was, that “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” Which would be the respective question for urbanism? I can’t give an answer here, but it is certainly not independence. This we can know through the lesson told by “Junkspace”. Another, almost ridiculous anti-candidate is sustainability, as far as it is conceived in terms of scarcity of mainly physical resources instead of social complexity. Perhaps we should remember the history of the city beyond its “functionality”. Yet, that would mean to first develop an understanding of (abstract) evolution, to instantiate that, and then to derive a practicable model for urban societies. What does it mean to be social, what does it mean to think, both taken as practice in a context of freedom? Biology then developed a small set of basic contexts along to which any research should be aligned to, without loosing the awareness (hopefully) that there are indeed four of such contexts. These have been clearly stated by Nobel laureate Tinbergen . According to him research in biology is suitably structured by four major perspectives: phylogeny, ontogeny, physiology and behavior. Are there similarly salient dimensions for structuring thought in urbanism, particularly in a putative non-modernist (neither modernist, not post-modernist) version? Particularly interesting are, imho, especially the intersections of such sub-domains.
Perhaps differentiation (as a concept) is indeed a (the) proper candidate for the grand perspective. We will discuss some aspects of this in the next essay: it includes growth and its modes, removal, replacement, deterioration, the problem of the generic, the difference between development and evolution, and a usable concept of complexity. to name but a few. In the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze, particularly the Thousand Plateaus, Difference and Repetition and the Fold, we already can find a good deal of theoretical work about he conceptual issues around differentiation. Differentiation includes learning, individually and collectively (I do NOT refer to swarm ideology here, nor to collectivist mysticism either!!!), which in turn would bring in the (abstract) mental into any consideration of urbanism. Yet, wasn’t mankind differentiating and learning all the time? The challenge will be to find a non-materialist interpretation of those in these materialist times.
1. Cited after 
2. Its core principles are the principle of excluded middle (PEM) and the principle of non-contradictivity (PNC). Both principles are equivalent to the concept of macroscopic objects, albeit only in a realist perspective, i.e. under the presupposition that objects are primary against relations. This is, of course, quite problematic, as it excludes an appropriate conceptualisation of information.
Both, the PEM and PNC allow for the construction of paradoxes like the Taylor Paradox. Such paradoxes may be conceived as “Language Game Colliders”, that is as conceptual devices which commit a mistake concerning the application of the grammar of language games. Usually, the bring countability and the sign for non-countability into conflict. First, it is a fault to compare a claim with a sign, second, it is stupid to claim contradicting proposals. Note, that here we are allowed to speak of “contradiction”, because we are following the PNC as it is suggested by the PNC claim. The Taylor-Paradox is of course, like any other paradox, a pseudo-problem. It appears only due to an inappropriate choice or handling of the conceptual embedding, or due to the dismissal of the concept of the “Language Game”, which mostly results in the implicit claim of the existence of a “Private Language”.
3. Vera Bühlmann, “Articulating quantities, if things depend on whatever can be the case“, lecture held at The Art of Concept, 3rd Conference: CONJUNCTURE — A Series of Symposia on 21st Century Philosophy, Politics, and Aesthetics, organized by Nathan Brown and Petar Milat, Multimedia Institute MAMA in Zagreb, Kroatia, June 15-17 2012.
4. German orig.: “Manhattan Space ist, wenn schon nicht überall, so doch im Internet potentiell überall, und zudem nicht mehr auf drei vielleicht gar noch räumliche Dimensionen beschränkt.”
5. Peter Sloterdjik does not like to be called a philosopher
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