“Western thought is marked by a will to architecture that is reiterated and renewed at times of crisis.” – Kojin Karatani
The Challenge of Architecture (as Metaphor):
There is a spectre haunting capitalist societies, the spectre of that which is repressed by “the will to architecture.”
The romantic interpretation of such implicitation would be to suppose that there is an insistent “truth” that is concealed by mystification, or ideology, or abstraction, or some other easily identifiable enemy that would retain a pure positionality for the cognizer. This is precisely the target of Postone’s critique of “traditional Marxism,” the latter which romanticizes the purity of transhistorical labor. It is also the matter of Sartre’s critique of Lukács, who romanticizes an historical “meta-subject” that would putatively adequately realize totality. Both of these objects of criticism are defined by a certain metaphysical assumption; they identify an Archimedean point from which revolutionary projects are meant to be built. In Sartrean terms, they place essence before existence.
However, there is a more substantive way to engage this issue that might also reveal a certain logic to the tendencies facing our world(s) at present.
In his essay “The Will to Architecture,” heretical Kantian-Marxist Kojin Karatani investigates a primary crisis condition. Explication reveals that Karatani intimates that Western thought is crisis-ridden precisely because of its tendency to use the architectural metaphor. However, this is not merely a lexical semantic concern but something more fundamental. Architecture as metaphor pertains to a tendency of Western thought to view itself 1) as controlling becoming (homo faber) and 2) as essentially constructive (fabrica mundi).
In controlling becoming, Karatani notes that it was Plato who proposed the architectural metaphor in contradistinction to pre-Socratic philosophy’s view of the world as becoming. Thus, Plato erects a dialogic system by which the logoi would usher thought through various “makings” (ie poiesis) in order to withstand becoming.
Here, Karatani mentions Nietzsche’s romantic critique of this tendency, which instead seeks to ground an alternative orientation that is faithful to the becoming of pre-Socratic thought. The reason this romantic critique falters is that it inadequately critiques the foundationalism of Platonic idealism, by misidentifying the source of crisis inherent in the Platonic system. That is, while Nietzsche rightly identifies the obsessive irrationality of Platonic system-building in concealing becoming, what Nietzsche ignores is the incessant return of the repressed endemic in the architectural metaphor per se. This is something that Deleuze also notices in the opening chapter of Difference and Repetition when he points out a tension in Plato between accurate copies of Forms and simulacra. That is, how are we able to adequately distinguish between a copy that is faithful to the Form and that copy that is a more degraded copy (perhaps a copy of a copy of a copy, ad infinitum)? On a possible resolution of this aporia, Plato remains skeptical.
The point in all of this is to note that there is something inherently dissonant in the architectural desire. And this dissonance is integral if we are to understand a particular challenge that should be of concern for any future critique of political economy: the challenge of architecture.
The Will to Architecture
When Karatani notes that a will to architecture is “reiterated” and “renewed” during times of crisis, we must see this “will to architecture” as a pathological tendency that obsessively builds in order to repress. If crisis is defined by making explicit that which is always-already implicit, then the will to architecture is the desire to re-implicate. That is, the will to architecture is a project of implicitation; a disposition that must not pay attention to the dissonance in an authentic sense; a disposition that must ignore the otherness of the static noise of othering that crisis brings to the present as presence. The will to architecture is an activity of ignorance. As such, despite assumptions pertaining to Western thought’s origins being built on rationality, it is fundamentally irrational. How this irrationality manifests itself is context-dependent, but we can use this framework that Karatani provides to gain insight into certain responses that have emerged in a post-GFC topos.
There is much discussion about the rise of nationalist authoritarianism, or as PPE contributors Ian Bruff and Cemal Burak Tansel et al have termed it “authoritarian neoliberalism.” If we take Karatani seriously, then we can understand this rise as precisely being a reiteration and renewal of the will to architecture. That is, the justification (i.e. explanans, not merely explanandum) for the rise of nationalisms is attributable to a type of crisis intervention. We might speak of authoritarian neoliberalism as a type of hedging of risk. The authoritarian nationalist discourse does not deny the crisis conditions. Rather, there is a translation of the crisis conditions according to certain formal semantic regimes that (pre)determine the response in nationalistic terms. This seems obvious enough.
What is perhaps novel is that we can extend Karatani’s metaphor to both conservative-liberal and progressive-radical responses to crisis conditions.
Tame, Smash Escape, Erode
Erik Olin Wright notably outlined four orientations of progressive-radical politics to capitalism: Tame, Smash, Escape, Erode
Taming capitalism is the project of social democracy (broadly construed). Smashing capitalism is the more revolutionary Marx-inspired approach. Escaping capitalism is what we might think of in terms of “folk politics,” horizontalism, and is largely attributed to anarchist approaches. And the orientation of eroding capitalism (Wright’s preferred orientation) would see a type of communization of capitalist society (through co-operatives, UBI, and other practical ensembles/relations that putatively contest the fundamental mechanisms of capitalist reproduction).
However, there are conservative-liberal obverses to these progressive-radical orientations. To tame, in this sense, would be to strengthen-through-reform the existing juridico-political order (in various formal guises) – this is the hallmark of the platform of the Democratic Party. To smash would be to demolish the foundations, through a type of controlled demolition, in order to rebuild a more pure or true structure (is this not the essence of Fascist regimes?). To escape would be, as an example, to return to an ideal type of pre-lapsarian state (trends in eco-fascism/neo-Jeffersonian agrarianism, popular new-age psychology, and many of the holistic and natural health trends fit this orientation); or, another example of conservative escape would be ancaps who argue for the idyllic purity of a market-based society (Mises being the truest of True Scotsman here). And to erode would be to implement policy proposals that supposedly confront the fundaments of neoliberalism – i.e. what we have in economic nationalism/authoritarian neoliberalism.
While this is clearly an abstract categorization, the use in such demarcation is that it reveals the variety of expressions that respond to crisis conditions. Prima facie, these two four-folds are opposed. However, there is a common root that unites them in a common trajectory: the will to architecture. They presume a certain active nature of homo faber to construct the world (fabrica mundi). Granted, we must not conflate the actual differences between anticapitalist and conservative-liberal orientations, but it is the often underacknowledged virtual conditions that enframe certain metaphysical tendencies that deserve attention. This is not some higher level horseshoe theory meant to suggest that both left and right are really just saying the same things when we ‘get down to it’. For, such an assertion purports to operate at the level of the empirical, but misrecognizes its own metaphysical interpretive architecture that determines this supposition and masks its cynical political agenda; a cynicism that itself is rooted in a type of romanticism that erects its own status as the Archimedean Point that has reached true gnosis (cause they’ve been red-pilled, or enlightened, or whatever other soteriological concept that might be wielded). Rather, it is a suggestion that there are traps that ensnare even the best of intentions insofar as they are encoded via a logic of the will to architecture.
Thus, we can see how both schemata – as architectural – are tendentially “caught up” by a certain irrationality. And this is because they fail to adequately square with the challenge of architecture. This is why both schema must be viewed as obverse images (also, on this point, cf. Baudrillard’s critique of Marxism in The Mirror of Production).
The Challenge of Architecture (as Metaphysics)
In his lectures on Identity and Difference, Martin Heidegger warns of the challenge of technology to Being and Dasein. This challenge is defined by the “planning and calculation of everything.” But this is not merely the exogenous, empirical activity of converting qualities into quantity (for example, the activities of environmental economics that seek to turn nature into putatively sustainable capital inputs). Even more, this challenge, for Heidegger, is fundamental: Being itself, as source, is challenged. That is, the very process by which appearing appears is challenged to accept the “planning and calculation of everything,” which means that there is a sense in which there is a metaphysical move to make planning and calculation absolute and necessary. As absolutely necessary (in the philosophical sense of both words), technology becomes the ground (both in terms of that which is desirable and in terms of actuality). This is not merely an accidental or contingent set of affairs, but rather becomes the absolutely necessary way of the world – in the metaphysical sense. Technology as world of worlds.
In this mode, technology takes the place of ultimate reality, as a metaphysical constant. It becomes the barometer by which all life is always-already measured, attuned; and from which all life springs. The result is that technologization, in the Heideggerian sense derived here, is the tendential and fundamental process by which the world is framed. This is the way we must conceive of the will to architecture. This “will” is not merely an empirical reality (though, of course, it is); it is fundamental. Observations of the deployment of the logic of architecture are not exogenous to pre-existent realities, the latter which merely need to be uncovered in their autonomous purity by a true mind so that we can avoid the faulty reasoning of the will to architecture. Rather, the challenge of architecture as metaphysical constant takes the form of the source from which all existence proceeds. It is the essence that sets the conditions for all possible determinate beings. This is the challenge of the will to architecture.
With regard to Dasein/humanity (and as we’ll see, the environment) being challenged, this is not merely an external imposition for humans to think alongside architecture as a benign utility or device, while preserving a pure and uncontaminated essence that can be retooled for benevolent ends. This latter desire is the ideological justification for all liberal reforms, of micro-credit schemes, of neoliberal structural adjustment programs, of hedging scenario-planning, of the UN’s goals as outlined via their sustainable development program, etc. Nor is this an assertion of biopolitical or algorithmic management through the exponential increase of information processing, data extraction, immaterial labor, the attention economy, the gig economy et al.
Again, our concern is more fundamental: humanity is challenged to speak alongside and according to the metaphysics of architecture. Regardless if we retain Heidegger’s language of Being (and there are plenty of reasons for not doing so), what we can retain is the fundamental nature of this challenge of architecture as the implicit and latent source that sets the orientations of all societal forms. Humanity, therefore, must not be understood in terms of a negative relation between itself and architecture (as in disciplinary power a la Foucault). Rather, there is a positivity that defines the will to architecture. There is a tendency for society itself to become immanent with architecturalization, to enjoy its libidinal relation with the very source from which all its juridico-political and economic strategies wellspring (cf. Byung-Chul Han & Jean-François Lyotard). The will to architecture speaks of the absolute and necessary movement of the logic of architecture.
As for ecological concerns, there is no shortage of warnings of the effects industrial and post-industrial relations are having on global systems. As Jason Moore notes, “we are at a crossroads,” and we are forced into choosing which path we pursue. This is why an investigation into the logic of architecture is not only a human or societal concern. For we must reject unnecessary bifurcations between nature and culture (Bruno Latour, Donna Haraway), the external and internal (Ariel Salleh, Bertell Ollman), nature and imagination (Matthew Ally, John Sallis), et al. Thus, a robust investigation into the challenge of architecture cannot rest in solutions that use the frame erected from the absolute logic of architecture. For this putative panacea is in fact a pharmakon. It is a cure that infects further. And this infection spreads through the logic of asymmetry. The result is that asymmetries are produced, which require further architectural intervention. And this further architectural intervention only exacerbates the implicit asymmetrical tendencies, which then necessitates even further architectural solutions. In practical terms, environmental degradation exposed to the pharmakon of the will to architecture may, for example, take the form of converting rainforests into financialized assets that serve to hedge risk for corporations and/or nation-states as part of their diversified asset portfolios (Michel Feher). In the end, what results is the exponential expansion of the same abusive pathology; for, thought and action proceed from the metaphysical axiomatic of an architectural pharmacology. This ensures that both analysis of the problematic and proposed solutions will only ever reproduce the very conditions that they reportedly seek to address and circumvent.
The stakes of this pathological tendency, however, also make it clear that crisis is neither arbitrary nor episodic. It may appear as such, insofar as the capitalist centres have well-fabricated their topoi by outsourcing death, inflation, violence, ecological degradation, et al to peripheral nations (and the peripheries within the centres). However, a more adequate investigative orientation would remain sensitive to the persistence of crisis as endemic; the latter being revealed in the challenge of architecture. Another way of saying this is that the Western edifice operates as crisis, but that the root of this crisis is not merely attributable to empirical or historical contradictions in capitalism. The root of Western crisis conditions is a metaphysical concern. And insofar as thought seeks to obsessively “make” (poiesis) its way out of crisis, it will never adequately adjust itself to the formal conditions of crisis that the will to architecture reproduces pathologically. This is the sense in which we must understand the Karatani quote at the outset of this essay: crisis itself is both reiterated and renewed via the will to architecture, the latter which itself is reiteration and renewal of formal crisis conditions.
Some Final Thoughts:
The real test of this Karatani-inspired framework would be to see if we can use it as a valuable heuristic to investigate all sorts of crises. As an example, does this hermeneutic help us in understanding the fallout from the current global pandemic? Can we conceive of CHAZ as a radical escape effort to “make” our way out of the crisis? Is the political spectacle leading up to the November election in the States identifiable as a battle between the liberal reformism of the Dems and the conservative discourse of eroding by Trumpism? Can we understand the operations of central bank sovereignty in perpetually providing liquidity as particular liberal crisis reforms that operate via a logic of the will to architecture? What about the role of derivatives in hedging risk? And obversely, can we analyze the impetus of Corbynism (or what remains of it) and perhaps even the Bernie campaign (and what remains from it) within this logic of the will to architecture? That is, in what way are these soc-dem/dem-soc efforts to reform or erode the crisis conditions via a homo faber project of fabrica mundi? And then, more importantly, in what ways can we identify the repressed in all of these activities? What is inherently (necessarily?) lacking in such orientations in their zeal to construct just worlds? And might this precisely present us with the challenge of architecture itself, in order that we might not rest in our irrational strategies that orient us in the worlds that we are always-already constructing as though such orientations might provide methodological panaceas?
And perhaps most importantly of all, as the return of the repressed is being kept at bay through these architectural projects, how can we better attune ourselves to the otherness of the other without either re-erecting metaphysical stopgaps or romanticizing otherness? This would be a proper project that would challenge the challenge of architecture.
Image: Aleksandr Vesnin, Proposal for a Monument to the Third International, 1921