the multitude >< the field of the Other


Vitruvius’ account of the primitive hut.

Three configurations of the group – three innovations – three (forms of ‘associative life’):

1. the individual – fire – (brownian movement)

2. the multitude – speech – (the field of the Other)

3. the people – building – (an armory, an exoskeleton, architecture is the first discourse)

The individual becomes a multitude when it enters the associative life of language. The multitude becomes a people when it builds a wall around itself, when it publicly (re)presents itself as architecture. Vitruvius’ account of the primitive hut is an analogy for the formation of the nation state (by nation state we mean a power structure that puts itself in dialogue with an imaginary entity called the body politic).

In Vitruvius’ account of the primitive hut, language and architecture are born together in fire. In his originary state, primitive man wanders alone in the forest. Imagine a kind of Brownian movement: each person exists alone, save for unmotivated chance encounters. A forest fire raises the statistic likelihood of chance encounters by driving these originary solipsists out of the forest and into a clearing where they gather around the remainders of the fire. Once so gathered, they decide that they ought to speak to each other. Hence the birth of language. Once speaking, they cooperate to build the first building.

This parable says something about the role of fire, which first presents itself as a danger, and subsequently an opportunity. It also underscores the opportunistic character of the primitive. There is no particular drive to speak or to build. Nor does the hand of god (or fate or destiny) drive progress. The primitive – like that contemporary persona, the slacker – is simply riding along on the flow of life, taking advantage of opportunities as they arise.

I would like to put Vitruvius’ account of the primitive together with the concept of the multitude as it is deployed in political discourse as a model for resistance to national and global power structures. The concept of the multitude was first mooted by Machiavelli, developed by Spinoza, hated by Hobbes. In Vitruvius, language and architecture are born together, but not simultaneously. First language then architecture. The fear of fire drives individuals together, which makes language possible, and language makes architecture possible. In the shift from speaking to building, from language to architecture, there is a shift in how the group is configured. This change is mirrored in political discourse by the shift from multitude to people. In Grammar of the Multitude (2004), Paolo Virno argues that political discourse distinguishes the people (champion, Hobbes) from the multitude (Spinoza). These are competing ways to invoke ‘associative life’. The birth of the modern nation state was made possible by the ascending concept of the people. Virno argues that modern political discourse may have run its course and it is time to reintroduce the political concept of the multitude. Whereas the people are the counterpart to the sovereign state, there can be no social contract between the state and the multitude.

‘I maintain that the concept of “multitude”, as opposed to the more familiar concept of “people”, is a crucial tool for every careful analysis of the contemporary public sphere. [It is a middle term.] One must keep in mind that the choice between “people” and “multitude” was at the heart of the practical [political] controversies… of the seventeenth century [the foundation of the modern centralised nation state]. These two competing concepts,… played a primary role in the definition of the political-social categories of the modern era. It was the notion of “people” which prevailed. “Multitude” is the losing term… In describing the forms of associative life and of the public spirit of the newly constituted great States, one no longer spoke of multitude, but of people. But we need to ask whether, today,… this once defeated notion is not displaying extraordinary vitality, thus taking its dramatic revenge.’ p21 [with my ‘intrusions’ in brackets]

I am attempting to understand the social conditions of the production of architecture on the basis of categories and concepts drawn from political philosophy and psychoanalytic theory, which are in turn drawn from linguistics. In order to understand clearly how architecture functions in respect to the social order of the individual, contemporary architectural production demands this depth of specialist analysis. Anything less fails to penetrate a cluster of self-serving political and spatial illusions.

We want to return architecture’s account of itself to its ground in individuals. In Vitruvius, the group is not a given, but undergoes a transformation between forest, fire, language, and architecture. The question is how to maintain a practice of architecture and the constitution of the group without constituting a unity. Driving this is a notion that we can restore the link between architecture and subjectivity, or what is the substantially the same, between architecture and production. How to have a collective discourse of the multitude that does not go to the fictional unity of the people? How to aestheticise the multitude without appealing to wholeness and unity. Lets wager, we can do this via the psychoanalytic concept of the field of the Other (about which, more later), in other words, the linguistic, architectural, cultural codes that bind us.

‘In order to name, with a unifying term, the forms of life and the linguistic games which characterize this era, I have used the notion of the “multitude”. This notion, the polar opposite of that of “people”, is defined by a complex of breaks, landslides, and innovations which I have tried to point out…: the life of the stranger… experienced as an ordinary condition; the prevalence of “common places” in discourse over “special places”; the publicness of the intellect…; activity without end (virtuosity); the centrality of the principle of individualism; the relation with the possible… (opportunism);… idle talk.’p97

Breaks Landslides Innovations – I read the multitude in the unmotivated opportunism that characterises the people in Vitruvius story. The multitude appears not simply as a polar opposite of people, as in Virno’s text, but as a middle term between people and individual. It is the murky surface from whence the individual and the people emerge and into which they return. What constitute the multitude as a multitude, without making them over as a people, what binds them without becoming a totalising unity, is language. It is not discourse per se, but the pre-condition for discourse that makes discourse possible. Let me therefore go one step further: what constitutes the multitude is the field of the Other. I borrow the field of the Other from Lacanian discourse. In its initial enunciation, this term is primarily linguistic (psycho-analysis is concerned with speech); in its development it encompasses all the symbolic codes of contemporary life, from language, to the law, to white dresses at weddings. The field of the Other is the field within which architecture is practiced. The field of the Other is a way to theorise the multitude without totalizing and unifying it. It is a way to treat the empirical reality of individuals, a reality founded in biology as much as subjectivity, as the collective that it is, without losing site of the multitude. And without defaulting to the political fantasy of a unified body politic which the state has to posit as its reflection, its reflective other.

‘In the multitude there is the full historical, phenomenological, empirical display of the ontological condition of the human animal: biological artlessness, the indefinite or potential character of its existence, lack of a determined environment, the linguistic intellect as a compensation for the shortage of specialised instincts.’ pp97-8

‘The multitude is this: a fundamental biological configuration which becomes a historically determined way of being, ontology revealing itself phenomenologically.’ p98

The individual becomes motivated when it enters into the associative life constituted by the field of the Other. The field of Other is the reality of codes that motivate and shape our actions, rather than the imaginary groups to which we identify. Desire is a function of language and other social codes. Desire flows through the individual and from one individual to another to form the multitude of individual desires of desiring individuals. When it manifests spatially, the individual finds itself literally immersed in desire. In this regard, Deleuze+Guattari (Anti-Oedipus: capitalism and schizophrenia) recognised the affinity between Freud and Marx: in their respective texts, the world is a continuous flow of libido (Freud) and capital (Marx). The multitude is a flow and the function of flows.

Where to go from here? We need to understand more fully the spatiality of the multitude. We need to trace our Vitruvian progression, individual-multitude-people, through Aureli’s distinction between the figured City and contemporary processes of Urbanisation. We need to find a third term between City and Urbanisation.

Paolo Virno A Grammar of the Multitude: for an analysis of contemporary forms of life (New York: Semiotext(e) 2004). Cf. also, ‘Multitude’ Wikipedia at                                                                                                     Vitruvius, On Architecture or The Ten Books of Architecture (New York: Dover, 1960). This woodcut from the Cesare Cesariano Italian edition (Como, 1521) the first translation of Vitruvius’ De Architectura out of Latin.


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