climate change and the death drive 2

An obvious model for understanding the self-destructive behaviour we are inflicting upon ourselves by damaging our environment is the death driveThe psychoanalytic theory of the drive has been invoked, in the past, outside the narrowly defined domain of psychoanalysis, to understand cultural productions like the Chapman Brothers’ Disaster of War (Tate 1993), Hell (White Cube 1992), and Fucking Hell (White Cube 1999). We need to understand that climate damage is a cultural production, it is a form of process art. It is a product of our culture alongside our other arts and our most hallowed institutions. It is the product of our enduring work (collective) and our daily labour (individual). It produces things that have a life span and that take up space. They can be displayed as objects of contemplation the way we display artwork. I am thinking of soya bean fields where there once had been rainforests, thousands of one ton blocks of carbon per year stacked in the desert like Judd Boxes, floating islands of plastic in the Pacific, sky charts decorated with ozone holes, the pantheon of extinct animals arranged in Cornell Boxes. These are the products of our culture that constitute our civilisation as much as are our artworks. It is of no consequence to their status as cultural productions that they were not commissioned by the Popes of Rome [think: the Sistine Ceiling]. Climate change lies in the space beyond the moral and ethical codes that we construct collectively; it abandons itself to the pure self-abasing pleasure of pain. Only, unlike the work of the Chapmans, no glass box contains climate change and the destruction it inflicts upon our bodies and minds, there is no formal argument, no Reiner de Graafian box [see Architectural Review October 2017], no Miesian refinement and civility. Only stuff everywhere.

Chapman_Hell1[Jake and Dinos Chapman, Fucking Hell in a glass box, taken from CultNation Tuesday 03 October 2017]

In Freud’s oppositional thought, for which see Beyond the pleasure principle (1920) , the drive is presented as a dialectic between eros and thanatos, love and death, which puts the forces of love life and creation in opposition to the forces of death and destruction. In Civilisation and its Discontents (1930), Freud puts forward another reading of the drive as a dialectic between individual and civilisation > civilisation which is the locus of the collective in all its forms – life creativity construction particularity and universality – versus the individual which is the locus of a form of repetition that undoes all that is civilisation and all that it stands for. Our moral and ethical codes are collective constructions of civilisation. This distinction between individual collective is not unrelated to Arendt’s distinction, in The Human Condition (1958), between labour and work [labour is what is consumed by daily life and work produces the surplus that constitutes a civilisation, a distinction that comes ultimately from Marx’s idea of the surplus that produces capital]. The psychoanalytic theory of the drive, provides a model for thinking our complicity in environmental damage and the related issue of the relation of individual to collective. In a nutshell, it is the rampant success of the individual and the failure of the collective.

Holm, Transformation 2017 25 Aug 17 copy.001-001

[Image from Jennifer Lavers (University of Tasmania and RSPB, 2016) of a curated beach taken from The Guardian Sunday 01 October 2017]

The theory of the drive goes something like this. In Civilisation and its Discontents (1930), Freud argues that civilisation imposes a framework upon subjects that reins in their wilder impulses. In Vitruvius, this is, in effect, the dispersed state of man before he discovers architecture, each person an independent solipsist. Without the civilisation that draws us together and frustrates our baser wandersome drives, we would spend our whole time fighting and fucking. He contrasts the collective condition of civilisation with the drives of the individual which are inherently destructive of civilisation. Civilisation… may help us to understand the different roles of the individual and the collective in climate damage. Let us make a wager, let us contrast individual greed vs collective good. The theory of the drive thus bridges the gap between the person and the group and helps us understand it. Neoliberal thinking exploits this difference, focusing on the individual and treating each one of us as a commodity (human capital) and an entrepreneur (cost centre, agent of more commodities). Commodity capitalism solicits our greed, it addresses each human at the level of the individual, with a product.

[Note: The treatment of the drive in the terms of individual/collective takes it into the territory of political theory. In his book, A Grammar of the Multitude (2004) Paolo Virno delineates multitude from public. The multitude is the figure of the many in political discourse. Frank Lloyd Wright called it mob and mobocracy. We distinguish the collective from the multitude because the collective is an entity, a form of totality, that has not relinquished its many-ness. It is the multitude that is bound by the inter-subjective network of social forms and relations without becoming the imaginary unity referred by politicians as the public as in that scapegoat mantra the public has spoken.]

In Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), Freud argues that the drive is a dialectic between eros and thanatos, love and death, which puts the psychical forces of love life and creation in opposition to the forces of death dispersal and destruction. The opposing drives toward love and death, pleasure and pain, construction and destruction, inhabit all people, and exist in an oppositional form that does not lead to any form of synthesis (Hegelian or otherwise). It may help us to understand that construction and destruction are inherent to each other, to understand the opposition, in other words, as a form of co-habitation. The economist and political scientist, Joseph Schumpeter described the process of capitalism as a form of creative destruction (Schumpeter’s gale).

In ‘The Drives and Their Vicissitudes’ (1915) [translated by Strachey as ‘The Instincts and their Vicissitudes’, which conflates Freud’s distinction between animal instinct which is biological and drive which is cultural], Freud describes the drive as a repetitive process that inheres in each person at the level of the individual psychical organism. It underlies all our shared symbolic activity [Lacan’s category], chief among which is language, but which includes all the arts, the social political and economic ceremonies and institutions that organise collective life. Freud describes the drive as a stimulus response mechanism that resides at the threshold between the body and the mind. It has 4 components: object, aim, thrust, and site. The sites are on the body [erogenous zones].

In The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis (1964) Lacan makes clear – contra Strachey – that  the drive is a symbolic entity with no basis in biology. The drive resides in the language and the spiritual life of humans, not in their bodies. He argues that the drive is a montage of elements (Freud’s 4 components), there is no biological necessity for the fact that they conjoin, they simply do as a matter of reason. He argues that all drives are death drives, all drives lead to death because it is the property of language, through which the drives work, to replace the object. We use language because the object is absent. Language – with is what humans do – is corrosive, the flow of signifiers that constitute language will wear down the world and crowd out reality.

Why is it significant to invoke the death drive in respect to climate change? Why is it not intellectual navel gazing and point scoring by theorists who have nothing better to do than spread doom and gloom in lefty newspapers by re-frying obscure idea systems? Firstly, psychoanalysis is pitilessly evidenced based. It may have a difficult relation to science because it follows a linguistic or semantic logic (a logical logic) rather than a cause-and-effect logic, but psychoanalytic theory is the condensation of countless hours of observation of what individuals say about themselves and what civilisation says about itself through its collective myths and productions. To poach a term from the social sciences, it is ground up theory (ground up or groundup?). To relate environmental damage to the death drive is to say that environmental damage in its myriad forms maps onto a universal template for what it is to be human. It is to be human to wrestle with constructive and destructive pressures, to be constituted of these oppositional impulses. In the terms of the death drive, it is to be human to be individual. It is to be individual to regard civilisation-building as arduous and difficult to sustain when what we would really rather do tonight is what we did last night, flub out in front of the telly. It is to be individual to want, despite our better selves (our collective selves) to want Bexit and Trump. Psychoanalysis is a rigorously empirical discipline and it may provide the narratives to help us understand our existential predicament. It may help us to humanise our selves in this predicament.

I put psychoanalysis forward as an example of myth-making, although it may not be the best/only example. The old language of psychoanalysis – the language that comes from Freudian analysis – is a resolutely humanist and non-instrumental narrative. In this regard, it finds a companion in the old language of architecture, as the form of humanism. It is pitted against the forms and languages of contemporary deregulated capitalism, which is so much chatter of a voracious expansionist narcissistic ego that sees itself reflected everywhere in the world and knows not its inside.


If this work has value, it is because it will help us think anew and in different ways about the existential problems confronting us. Understanding is the key to change. Avoidance is the key to repeating the same pathologies over and over again. Classical Psychoanalysis, like classical Greek Tragedy, has given us great narratives to live and die by. We need new narratives because we need narratives that correspond to the truth of our time. We need narratives that help us to recognise and understand the bad times that we live in, so that we stop playing the language game of avoidance and denial. The narratives of progress, and in particular, the upbeat spin placed upon that narrative by the neo-liberal marketing culture that talks about everything as if it were the latest best product and that seems to have permeated almost every aspect of collective life from education to health care, have had their go and failed. If the future is so bright, why do I hurt so bad? If you greet me with a smile and a hand shake, why do I feel a knife in my kidneys? If my student experience is so important, then why am I treated as if I were a commodity? There is nothing worse than living in an environment where the narrative does not match the reality we experience. The Scottish psychoanalyst R.D. Laing reckoned it was the families with counter-truth narratives that produced psychotic children. There is nothing worse for our individual and collective health and well-being than a narrative that does not give us the linguistic tools for unpacking the condition we live in.


climate change and the death drive 1

Rachel Carson published Silent Spring in 1963; Greenpeace was founded in 1971. We have been knowingly damaging our environment for three generations. Each year the damage is rediscovered under a new name and we respond as if we have been hit by a new crisis.

We need new narratives for combating climate change. The narrative of science and the acquisition of knowledge has failed to halt the damage we are inflicting upon the environment. In the simplest possible terms, this narrative is no longer realistic. It does not match the reality of climate change, the reality that we are the cause of this damage.

Holm, Transformation 2017 25 Aug 17 copy.003-001

Here is a line of inquiry:

1. We could stop climate change tomorrow if we wanted [in what sense of want? where is this want? in who/what does it reside?].

2. Climate change constitutes a form of self-harm [we are an integral part of the environment we are damaging].

3. Which suggests new models for understanding environmental damage, drawn from the domain of psychoanalytic theory and practice.

In this context, climate science, as necessary as it is, is a displacement activity from acting on environmental damage, a way of looking outward when we should be looking inward.

A displacement activity is a defence of the ego > the ego defends itself against the truth of our nature [the ego has a traumatic relation to the truth] by looking to pin the blame elsewhere.

It is aided and abetted by other defences of the ego well known to psychoanalysis: a form of knowing/not knowing [in the social sciences – cognitive dissonance] and a form of repetition [what I call the repetition of the new]. Both of these defences are ways of avoiding our complicity in damage to the environment.

Holm, Transformation 2017 25 Aug 17 copy.001-001

As The Guardian reported (‘38 million pieces of plastic waste found on uninhabited South Pacific island’, Monday 15 May 2017, accessed Sunday 01 October 2017), when Dr. Jennifer Lavers (University of Tasmania) surveyed Henderson Island with a team of marine scientists in 2015 they were surprised to find the beaches covered in plastic debris. An estimated 17.6 tonnes; 38 million pieces. Henderson Island is a tiny atoll in the Pitcairn Group, one of the most remote places on earth. This image taken from the Guardian article, is from Lavers’ report, published by the RSPB (UK). See Figure 33 ‘Enormous quantities of plastic debris on North-East Beach, Henderson Island’ in Lavers, J.L., McClelland, G.T.W., MacKinnon, L., Bond, A.L., Oppel, S., Donaldson, A.H., Duffield, N.D., Forrest, A.K., Havery, S.J, O’Keefe, S., Skinner, A., Torr, N., and Warren, P., Henderson Island expedition report: May-November 2015. RSPB Research Report 57 (RSPB Centre for Conservation Science, RSPB, The Lodge, Sandy, Bedfordshire, SG19 2DL. 2016).

An obvious model for environmental damage is the psychoanalytic theory of the drive, the death drive.  In Freud’s oppositional thought, Beyond the pleasure principle (1920) , the drive is a dialectic between eros and thanatos, love and death, which puts the forces of love life and creation in opposition to the forces of death and destruction. In Civilisation and its Discontents (1930), Freud puts forward another reading of the drive as a dialectic between individual and collective > the collective which is the locus of civilisation in all its forms – life creativity construction particularity and universality – versus the individual which is the locus of a form of repetition that undoes all that is civilisation and all that it stands for. This is not unrelated to Arendt’s distinction, in The Human Condition (1958), between work and labor [work produces the surplus that constitutes a civilisation and labour is consumed by daily life]. The psychoanalytic theory of the drive, provides a model for thinking our complicity in environmental damage and the related issue of the relation of individual to collective. There is however, a bigger picture.

If we are going to stop damaging our selves and our environment, we are going to need two things:

1. new forms of community, new collective platforms for community building, and

2. new shared or collective narratives.

We need – in other words – new shared narratives and new shared spaces that uncouple us from the positivist narratives of scientific progress, the model of entrepreneurship that is the template for all forms of labour nowadays, and the mendacious cheerfulness of commodity capitalism which addresses our desire at the level of individual want and never at the level of collective construction [unconscious desire]. Science is a good model for the collective, with its universal methods and dissemination, but the scientific narrative of the acquisition of knowledge is not helping us stop damaging the environment. Perhaps we need narratives of renunciation. We need collective narratives and collective platforms for sharing them because if we are going to have to renounce something, something in our nature, our avarice, our expansionism, perhaps even some of our wealth,  it will need to be renounced collectively. No one will willingly give up something unless everyone does.

We need new narratives because we need to know how to do good in a world where we keep doing bad.

We need narratives that will humanise us in this condition of repeated failure.

Narratives that will allow us to address and understand failure so that we do not go on repeating it.

Narratives that will allow us to forgive ourselves and others for the damage we are doing.

We need climate change research that looks at the stories that have stayed with us, that has withstood the test of generations, and that we continue to find ourselves reflected in. We probably need to look at myth and myth-making [psychoanalysis is a form of myth-making]. We probably need to look to classical tragedy. The climate scientist is the tragic hero, doing something that is at one and the same time necessary but doomed to failure.

We don’t know how narratives are born. We don’t know how myths are made. We don’t know where the Zeitgeist comes from. Except that they are collective.

A footnote on research:

It is time to renounce dubious measureables and start thinking again. This knowledge will come from the art&design [including architecture] and literature communities, for these are the creative communities where synthesis occurs. It will not come from the social sciences because the social sciences are mired in dubious measureables [sic]. It is in art&design and architecture that we find the two principal media or environments for collective platforms: digital space and city space. Both are collective, both are constructed. These two environments offer the most possibility for collective action. We need research that puts these two practices in direct action with each other. They are also the key places where collective action is most undermined – think of current disinformational ‘separatist’ politics and squanderous development outside our cities.

Holm, Transformation 2017 25 Aug 17 copy.002-001

I love the smell of napalm in the morning invokes at one and the same time, a certain form of domestic bliss [coffee] and our wanton destruction of the environment. We need to understand how they are conjoined. We want this [clean air, clear water, green land] but we want that more [beach holiday, second car, avocados from overseas]. Coppola’s film may have been intended to work through the traumatic effects on the American psyche of the Vietnam War, for which a generation of Americans are indebted, but the humour of Bill Kilgor’s quip, uttered with such conviction, continues to resonate with the truth.




Architecture and the Unconscious


London Book Launch >>> 5-8:00pm >>> Friday 09 December 2016 >>> University College London

We (Jane Rendell and I) are launching Architecture and the Unconscious (Routledge 2016), an edited collection of essays by architects and theorists of architecture, which explores the concept of the unconscious in architectural thought and imagination. Edited by John Hendrix and Lorens Holm. On sale at the London event at special discount by the AA Bookstore. This project began as a paper session that John and I co-chaired at the annual international conference of the Society of Architectural Historians in Austin, April 2014, more than two years ago.

The launch will include a discussion between the contributors to the book and an invited panel of psychoanalysts and architects, including:

David Bell, Past President British Psychoanalytic Society; and Consultant Psychiatris, The Tavistock Clinic.

Lesley Caldwell, Psychoanalyst BPA, and Honorary Professor, UCL Psychoanalysis Unit.

Patrick Lynch, Lynch Architects London, and University of Liverpool.

The contributors to Architecture and the Unconscious are from cities around the UK, USA, and Europe including Moscow, Rome, and Athens: Andrew Ballantyne, Kati Blom, Hugh Campbell, Emma Cheatle, Gordana Fontana-Giusti, John Hendrix, Lorens Holm, Stephen Kite, Christina Malathouni, Tim Martin, Francesco Proto, Jane Rendell, Nikos Sideris, Alla Vronskaya.

Architectural values

My work is about developing the values of architecture, architectural values. These values are based in the human understanding. The domain of my research is architectural theory. I use writing and disputation as research methods to develop values for architecture and the city based in human understanding. My work draws heavily on the humanities – indeed, I regard architecture as a humanity, not a science or social science – because that is the discourse in which our values are most directly articulated.

I use the term architecture in the broadest way, to include the city – what Rossi called the architecture of the city, architecture framed by a city constructed of architecture – to include all the environments we construct in order to live well in them. I look at our understanding of ourselves, and of others, the sorts of judgements we make about ourselves and the world, the categories by which we organise the world. My work is an extended critique or extended reflection that usually takes the form of an extended critique.

My work refers to the architectural theories and histories that precede it, but also to the disciplines of psychoanalysis [Lacan, Freud] and philosophy [Kant, Hegel], as the two most extended discourses on the human subject. I look at questions of space, culture, subjectivity, well-being, attachment, quality, quantity.

I do research in architectural theory by making more of it. It is speculative, fictional, and it avoids the evidence base like the plague.

These values are based in human understanding, the philosopher Immanuel Kant would have called it simply the understanding, the understanding of ourselves and others, ourselves and the world, ourselves in relation to others and to the world. These values are other to the prevailing narratives of entrepreneurship and utility that are championed by government aligned with business, except to the extent that human values may be driven by acquisition of money and problem solving. My work is important because these New Labour narratives (champions of neo-liberalism, thank you Blair) may be the drivers for most architecture, but they have relatively little to do with architecture as a practice that has extended across thousands of years. This extended practice edits out the flash-in-the-pan narratives that are destructive to architecture and to the people that inhabit it. Architecture may now find itself the tool and lackey of development and investment, but architecture is not a product and is not produced as such, nor is it easily turned into a commodity.

I solve the world’s problems, by finding new models for understanding them.

Architecture is (not) interested in well-being

Architecture is interested in architecture. It is not interested in well-being, or other social sciences categories that are imposed upon architecture by government planning policy units and the university research policies that support them. Architecture is interested in architecture. If you get the architecture right, well-being will follow. A quick look at the way development is breaking up the public realm in most cities – reducing it increasingly to an incoherent and unedifying condition – will convince most people that getting the architecture right is no easy feat. This post is a plea for architectural research.

Architecture does not come to people. People come to architecture.

We can ask what makes good architecture? Despite the hegemony in contemporary governance for bean-counting audits, there is no tick-box of qualities. Think sideways to what makes good literature. Think how different Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice is to Samuel Beckett’s The Unnameable. There is no list of qualities that they share. What makes good architecture (literature) is its single-mindedness of purpose, the ruthless clarity with which it pursues an idea. Le Corbusier said this in 1923. If the idea is compelling, people will come to it, people will crawl to it the way they will crawl to St. Peters. People will accommodate themselves to it willingly, and with pleasure and satisfaction.

If you look at this seminar room that we are in now, for instance, this room I am standing in and speaking to you in, me here, you all there, it is not horrible. It has a nice acoustic ceiling. It is evenly lit. It has a door. Space for tables and chairs. None of us are in pain, or at least not because of the architecture. But there is nothing compelling about it. It is simply the most efficient armature for hanging audio visual equipment which does not compromise comfort. But it does not see us. It is not organised for us. It is, however, organised. It is organised in a way that generates the most return for its investors. It is organised for the profit of its investors who are hidden from the occupants – you and I – who sit here now.  We, in so far as we constitute the University of Dundee, are on puppet strings to whoever developed this building for their profit.

If you look around at all the disorganised spaces in our buildings and cities, it is clear that architecture has failed. But how has it failed? It has failed in its battle against the forces of finance, financially driven development. It has failed to represent, by architectural means or architectural expression, what we might call human values, or more precisely – following Kant – the human understanding. These spaces may be disorganised for people, they may not make sense to their occupants, but they are not dis-organised. They are highly organised. As architect Rem Koolhaas has insisted, the city is organised for making money. To bastardise Le Corbusier, these spaces are highly tuned machines for making money in.


space and subjectivity > perspective

brunelleschi's dream of space2crop lite inverted

Brunelleschi’s demonstration of perspective puts a viewer of Florence behind a view of Florence. Space possesses a realness to which we are always drawn, but which will always escape the means and media by which we seek to capture it.

The first half of Brunelleschi Lacan Le Corbusier: architecture space and the construction of subjectivity, argues that Brunelleschi’s invention of perspective formalized the template for the modern desiring subject. In architectural discourse, the modern or perspectival subject…

  • is first and foremost in space and in a space (a particular space bound by a horizon); and
  • is in that space at a position amongst an array of possible, past, and future positions; and
  • is in that space as a viewer (a subject of spatial experience which underlies virtually all other experience, spatial or otherwise);
  • on account of which last two, s/he has a point of view;
  • distances his/herself from his/her objects (when they are desired objects they are experienced as being distant);
  • positions his/herself in power and in ideology in ways that maps onto his/her position in space (this last point may be critical for political discourse).

Most critically, in architectural discourse, this modern or perspectival subject…

  • has a psychical interior (i.e. the subject is an interior space) that shadows a shared exterior (i.e. an objective exterior);
  • the subject finds him/herself split in the sense that s/he is never the unity of thought action and labour that being in a position in space suggests (another way to put this would be the constituent non-coincidence of the spatial and speaking subjects).

This is the schema for a project that has the potential for unfathomable richness and intricateness. It may be led by architecture and architectural thinking, but it is the domain of all the labour that puts artifacts in the world.

The dynamic relation between interior and exterior is formalised by the processes of introjection and projection. Contained herein is the spatial meaning of the architectural project.

rooms + cities 3

st louis in two acts small (scene of crime)

city field inscription – the tenuous spatial poetics of the subject in the city, whose image and position are always fading away. montage derived from reading Beckett and St. Louis, MO.

Following Lacan, I want to argue that we are fundamentally spatial beings. I want to argue that architecture is the practice that positions the subject in space because that subject is spatial. If the subject is a speaking being, then we need to ask how the subject is also a spatial one? This is not simply the default mode of having a body. One of the ways to approach this question would be to look at the degree to which architecture is a symbolic discourse that insists that the speaking subject of analysis and the spatial subject of architecture are aligned with each other in a relation that will always be problematic. This relation is a symbolic fact, not simply an anatomical one. There are consequences for the coincidence and/or non-coincidence of the speaking subject with the spatial subject. I would like to address space as concept, because it is critical to my interest in space and subjectivity, in how space and subjects are conceptually and experientially bound to each other. Let’s start with an example from modernism. In Space Time and Architecture, Giedion says that if you want to understand architecture, you have to understand space. He says space conception, not space. Space is something we conceive prior to experiencing it, space is a concept we experience. According to Giedion, there are three space conceptions in Western architecture. For Giedion, space as a symbolic construct that makes certain things accessible to thought and perception, and rules out others. Space for Giedion is not a default given, a simple fact of experience. We conceptualise space by making architecture, the way we think about it and instrumentalise it. Giedion’s taxonomy:

The Archaic or Greek space conception is about architectural objects in dynamic relations with each other. This exterior space corresponds to externalized subjects like Odysseus who regularly converses with Athena and with an architecture whose interiors are without significance and are uncelebrated, like the Parthenon. In the Classic space conception, architecture is hollowed out to make the interior space of Roman and the renaissance architecture. This conception was clarified by the invention of perspective. Finally there is the Modern space conception, a dynamic relation between inside and outside across the charged and tremulous threshold of modern architecture, which corresponds to the modern subject who imagines him/herself to have a psychoanalytic inside that shadows a real outside. Deleuze and Guattari propose to go beyond Giedion’s taxonomy with fold space, which is a continuous fluid space unencumbered by neurotic bourgeois constructions like thresholds and other modernist binaries. Their figure of the schizo as the action hero of 20th Century capitalism is a return to Odysseus.

The architectural discourse that emerges from phenomenology seems to regard space and its discourses as a reductive gesture that leads to a flattening of experience, or the flattening of ‘world.’ To the contrary, space is the protagonist that opens experience and representation up to an unfathomable richness. Le Corbusier called space indicibile. It is unsayable and ineffable. Space possesses a realness to which we are always drawn, but which will always escape the means and media by which we seek to capture it. We are drawn to space out of love the way we are drawn to wisdom, love of what is real, real love. My work is dedicated to deepening the mystery of space, which is the opposite of making it transparent to reason. Space is the surface out of which subjectivity emerges and to which it returns; in the way that non-sense is the surface from whence sense emerges and to which it returns. Modernism has left us with a rich heritage of space that has nothing to do with efficiency, function, or profitability. Joyce and Beckett, two of our richest modern authors, would be unintelligible without thinking space and subjectivity together. Mies and Miralles, two of our richest modern architects would be unintelligible without thinking space and subjectivity together. The project of psychoanalysis and philosophy, at least for architecture, is to continue to develop that richness by working through the consequences of the many threads that bind space and subjectivity to each other. I argue in Brunelleschi Lacan Le Corbusier, that Brunelleschi’s invention of perspective formalized the spatial template for the modern desiring subject; and Le Corbusier’s career, the template for the modern form of cyclical or loopy temporality. Both of which challenge what Eisenman refers to as genus loci and zeitgeist, presence of place and presence of time, the two metaphysical doctrines underlying most architectural thinking. To my mind, space is inseparable from subjectivity. This is difficult to say directly because space and subjectivity are experienced in a state of distraction (thanks Benjamin). It can only be alluded to, in moments of protest that interrupt the discourse of others.

rooms + cities 2


Our aim is to study – by architectural means – the forms and conditions for the eruption of rooms within the fabric of the city. By fabric we mean texture, infrastructure, morphology, topography, and zoning, even. Rooms may take many forms and scales, they may be big or little, public or private, commercial or residential, habitable or uninhabitable, accessible or inaccessible,…. Let us wager that the subject of the city sees itself in the room. The subject uses the room to locate itself, whether the room is accessible or not. In their many and varied forms, rooms represent the subject of the city to itself and to others. In the language of Lacan, the subject is in an imaginary and/or symbolic relation to the room. Imagine for a moment that the city has two surfaces, both of which are problematic. There is an outer surface and an inner surface. The outer surface is the interface between the city and its region or hinterland, usually rural. The inner surface is the interface between the spatial subject and the city or city fabric. Both are problematic, not least because the outer edge no longer exists (it has been urbanised), and the inner edge never did (it is symbolic or imaginary, it is always already disappearing).

If the spatial subject did not exist, this architectural project, which creates a space for inhabitation by projection, would not be intelligible as a project, or, if intelligible, not poignant.

SOM, Lever House, NYC (completed 1952). Designated as a NYC Landmark, 1982. Built by British soap manufacturers Lever Brothers as their American headquarters. Lever Bros. founded in Warrington (1885), merged (1930) with the Dutch margarine company Margarine Unie to form Unilever. Merger based on the natural affinity of soap and margarine.

Psychosis and sub urban is a tion

las vegas at 3k las vegas at 30k
Las Vegas from an altitude of 3k © Google Earth + Las Vegas from an altitude of 30k © Google Earth

The psychotic logic of the suburb:

  • its manic repetition.
  • an assembly-line environment constantly machined to perfection.
  • a spatial logic whose certainty is matched by its utter banality and it utter lack of discrimination.
  • a category-defying logic that oozes smoothly across the surface of the earth, pouring into every nook and cranny, without any recognition of difference, orientation, topography.

And if it is not ideal, it is at least irresistible; it draws us in the way the gambler is drawn to money.

Within each suburban house, is a family. The Oedipal triangle of the bourgeois family is the model and structure upon which neurosis is built. Each father mother child neurosis template inhabits an identical house box on an identical lawn on an identical street that repeats almost without change. Contemporary urbanisation presents a model for the relation of psychosis and neurosis –  which is quite different from the model developed in the early 20th C by psychoanalysis. In the texts of Freud and Lacan, they are equivalent, alternatives, binary; Freud’s research focused on neurosis, Lacan’s focused on psychosis. The subsequent commentary of philosophers Deleuze+Guattari argue that the psychotic has superceded the neurotic as the creative agent and action hero of 20th Century capitalism. Contemporary urbanisation suggests a third relationship, a new model, that is not theoretical dialogue, or theoretical supercession. It suggests a spatial and social hierarchy, that neurosis is nested within psychosis. Individual neuroses are nested within the framework of a collective psychosis.

objet petit a is the elephant in the room

The subject is a screen, Lacan- operational montage w_ text
Lacan’s diagram of the visual field, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psyscho-Analysis (New York: Norton, 1973/1981) p106

Objet petit a is a key concept in Lacan’s interpretation of Freudian psychoanalysis. The object little other (a for the French autre) which is a real object as opposed to the big Other which is not an object but a field of potential (about which, see earlier posts). In a nutshell, objet a is the point about which your neuroses or your symptoms revolve. It is like the proverbial elephant in the room which everyone silently avoids. Everyone, in silent collusion, pretends it is not there. It is a conceptual object, an object in the way that a point in geometry is an object. Lacan relates it to what he calls a geometral point. Objet a has a spatial logic. It is one of the components in Lacan’s text that makes psychoanalysis so spatial and hence amendable to architectural thought. But it also confounds spatial logic because it is always in you and outwith you. In psychoanalytic theory, there is a mirror equivalence between the subject’s inner and outer welt (world). This is represented in Lacan’s diagram of the visual field (where objet a is translated as the gaze or look). The world is always doubled. There are always two, your house, and the house you represent in your mind. They almost coincide, and there is a question about which one is more real.

Note: The doubling can be read two ways: a world and its reflection (either side of the image), or a world and an inverted world (two triangles intersecting at the screen).

Lets begin again. Objet a is a conceptual point that organises a subject’s signifiers. Imagine them revolving around a centre. It is not itself a signifier, but a point that organises them. Hence it is an empty spot in a subject’s discourse. Lacan treats it two ways in The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis. He introduces it in his discussion of the visual field [p67ff] where he explains it as the visual analogue of the vanishing point and a blind spot in the field of vision. In perspective, the vanishing point organises the picture even as it is the point at which all visual images vanish. It is not itself a visual image. It is also a counterpart to the viewer, the vanishing point is always opposite the eye point of the subject. Similarly, objet a (the gaze) organises the subject’s images or visual signifiers, its emptiness a counterpart to the essential emptiness of the subject. Lacan returns to objet a later in the same text [p149ff] in the theory of the drive, where it is shown [p178] as a point around which the subject’s signifiers revolve rather like the upstream side of water flowing past a pole. They circle objet a without touching it, without becoming it. As if we are simply a signifier machine, signifiers churning incessantly, and it matters little what they signify. Imagine the proverbial talking head at a party.

Psychoanalysis distinguishes the house you perceive from the house you represent to yourself; and has very little interest in the former, and everything to do with the latter. Hence Lacan’s interest in perspective as opposed to optics. The house you perceive is the outer world you share with others, barring relatively minor errors in perception about which we can usually agree to disagree. The house you represent to yourself and to others is an amazing world of signifiers, without which, of course, we could never agree or disagree about our perceptions.