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.


Class Unconsciousness and the project of architecture

P. Accolti, elongated eye, 1625
Pietro Accolti, Prospettiva Pratica (Florence, 1625), anamorphic projection

Architecture is the praxis that takes our collectively held ideologies, attitudes, and understandings, and puts them concretely into the world. In so far as architects are asked to transform our environment by putting new bits in and removing old bits, architects do something other professions do not do. When a client commissions an architect to build, e.g., a hospital, the architect is asked to take our collectively held views on hospitals and health care generally – all our collectively held ideas, knowledge, attitudes, prejudices even – and put them into material form. In order to do this, the architect must reflect upon these social formations. S/he must internalize them and project them into the environment. This is the architectural meaning of the word project, and the definition of the architecture project [Tafuri].

These social formations are collectively held, but they are transformed into the particular, material and spatial form of a building by a process that is channeled through the reflection of a single architect. Society places a burden of trust on architects. How accurate a reflection, how comprehensive a materialisation, depends upon the capacity of the architect to reflect, and the capacity of the design process to allow for reflection. Architects reflect by drawing. This is what happens when a client briefs an architect, the architect briefs his/her design team, the design team returns to the client with a design proposal.

Every time someone throws a Sainsbury cart through a storefront (an act that is not without a certain social integrity or legitimacy), or a volume home builder puts 500 homes on a site in the beltway, a social formation is concretised in the world. The difference between the architecture project on the one hand and a riot or sub-development on the other, all of which are radical projections of a social formation into a physical one, is that the latter are forms of acting out. The riot in particular is a form of class action that has not been sublimated through a process of reflection. Both issue from an unmediated drive that is creative-destructive [Schumpeter’s gale, Klee’s angelus novus]. These transformations of the environment occur without reflection on our collectively held views, or at least without reflection in a form that is recorded in a design process. They are not architecture projects in the architectural sense of project: a trope that goes from the conceptual and collective to the material and particular. It is reflection which gives the architecture project its fictive quality, a quality that the riot or sub-development will never have.

We are reasserting here a version of Mies’ thesis that architecture is the expression of the zeitgeist, the spirit of the age. Except instead of spirit [Hegel], we are speaking about a form of class consciousness [Hegel, via Marx].

The architecture project is a form of materialisation of class consciousness [Marx], except that it is more often than not class unconsciousness, because many of the ideas, presuppositions, prejudices, clichés, ideologies that we hold collectively, we are unaware of. It takes a form of cultural analysis, which proceeds as a form of reflection upon our artefacts, to make them manifest, explicit, conscious. The collective unconscious is the library from which Rossi’s collective memory draws forth its forms. The project makes conscious, i.e., puts into material space and form, the social formations that had hitherto remained hidden. To go from concept to material, hidden to visible, latent to manifest, unconscious to conscious, inside to out, are different glosses on the idea of the project, which involves a transformation.

Reflection involves introjection [Lacan] as well as projection. The architect has to internalise the social formation that s/he finds her/himself amidst – inhale this ambient social cloud, as it were – before it can be projected as material form.

Note: Throwing a cart through a storefront is a form of projection, but no reflection on social life has been undertaken and consequently, there has been no transformation from conceptual to material. It simply involves the translation of material from one location to the other, like vomit.

rooms + cities

madrid placa mayor

The city has an inner surface and an outer surface. It is as crucial to give the city an inner surface as it is for it to have an outer one, especially when the outer surface is losing its clarity under the continual pressure of urbanisation. These surfaces are urban scale structures and structures of experience. There is also a question of institutions and enclaves. For Tafuri, the problem of architecture is how to understand or position architectural ‘ideology’ within the context of capitalist development (economics, production, planning, its history). For me, the problem of architecture is how to understand architectural ideology – i.e., architectural thought, principles, values, its many and varied discourses – within the context of an ecological crisis. The difference between our approaches has to do with what we regard to be the determining context for architecture: capitalism and the environment. Architecture is a tool for acting out our desire upon the surface of the earth. We can ask, why do we want to poison our habitat, destroy our own house? We do it in capitalist and socialist societies. The economic/political neutrality of my thesis is a function of the nature of the beast (both regimes are heavy polluters), and a function of the hegemony of capitalism (Zizek has argued that there is now nothing outside of capitalism, we are all capitalists, there is no choice anymore, and no class consciousness. These two contexts manifest differently for architecture. For Tafuri, capitalism as the determining context for architecture seems to be the hand that drives it. For me, the ecological crisis as context is the challenge confronting architectural thought, the problem it has to solve. The former pushes and the latter pulls. They are not exclusive of each other. If humans are fundamentally exploitative, if work is a process of exploitation, there may be an historical shift in our thought and labour. Man exploiting man. Man exploiting nature.

Google Earth image of Plaza Mayor, Madrid (598–1621) from 877 metres. See also Manfredo Tafuri, Architecture and Utopia: design and capitalist development (MIT Press 1979)

architectural evidence that the spatial subject exists

Monument Paul Vaillant Couturier - Villlejuif, yellow

The relation of mouth and hand, speech and gesture (the poignancy of both), a concrete cantilever beam accusing a concrete plane surface to describe a triangular site (the poignancy of both), the people beneath, a scalar relation: the immediate and intuitive intelligibility of this project is additional evidence that the spatial subject exists.

Le Corbusier, project for a monument to Paul Vaillant-Couturier, Villlejuif, Paris (1937). Paul Vaillant-Couturier, Villlejuif was editor-in-chief of the Communist newspaper L’Humanite.

architectural evidence that the spatial subject exists

04_palazzo-del-littorio_carminati-lingeri-saliva-terragni-vietti-nizzoli-sironi1 crop

We draw buildings,

build buildings,

use buildings, and

write about buildings.

No one has yet explored, or explored fully, the quadripartite structure of our engagement with architecture. And in particular, the relation between these terms – drawing, building, using, writing – which is sequential episodic and cyclical. One thing is clear however: this engagement with architecture is also an engagement with ourselves. We draw buildings, which puts them in relation to the symbolic world of desire and ideology (think of the ideological shift attending each new technique of representation). We build them, which extracts them from a representational context and puts them in an organised world of finance and production. We use buildings in symbolic and material ways, the latter primarily by inhabiting them. We write about them to reorient them within their symbolic and material contexts, and to plot the path of their efficacy, as part of a continual process that critically rearranges our thinking on architecture. This is not a process of correction; it is work, psychical and physical work.

In order to put buildings in relation to the human subject that inhabits them, we draw on philosophy and psychoanalysis because these are the two discourses that treat the human subject in its capacity as a thinking being and a speaking being. These capacities are so essentially human that research relevant to architecture always ignores them. One of the challenges of writing about architecture is how to bring the human subject as a thinking and speaking being in line with the human subject as a spatial being. This capacity to be spatial is not exhausted by the material fact that we have a body; nor indeed, is the capacity to inhabit architecture exhausted by the fact of the body. The relation between thinking, speaking, and spacing needs to be explored. How does architecture reflect the fact that the human subject who inhabits space, inhabits it as a speaking being and a thinking being? How does this fact change our thinking on the social political economic historical material aesthetic efficacy of architecture? The immediate and inherent intelligibility of a project for a palazzo that addresses the Basilica of Maxentius and Constantine, witnessed by the Colosseum, is architectural evidence that the spatial subject exists.

If spatial subjects did not exist, this architectural project would not be intelligible as a project, or, if intelligible, not poignant.

Guiseppe Terragni, with A. Carminati, P. Lingeri, M. Nizzoli, E. Saliva, M. Sironi, & L. Vietti, Competition entry for Palazzo Littorio, Rome, project A, 1934. Littorio addresses Maxentius, witnessed by Il Colosseo, on a triangular site. Note also Il Duce’s podium and the curved facade decorated with stress fractures.

images of the multitude > distribution of goods

amazon 'fulfillment centre', england

Amazon and contemporary processes of marketing and distribution of commodities, in a social world where everyone is a consumer. The multitude takes a particular form of repetitive space.

‘An Amazon ‘fulfilment centre’ in England shows a vast supply of goods. On Tuesday, Amazon made more than a million new products available on its Canadian website as it moves even further away from its roots as an online bookseller.’ (Phil Noble/Reuters). Accessed 12:26pm, Saturday 11 October 2014 from http://www.cbc.ca/news/business/amazon-beefs-up-online-offerings-in-canada-1.2593861

the field of the Other


Other                                                                          other

One of the relevances of psychoanalysis as a discourse for architecture, is that it addresses collective, associative life, through the concept of the Other, without relying on fictitious unities like the people, the body politic, etc. The Other is the field of social codes – language, the law, the customary practices of daily life, white dresses at weddings, fork on the left, and the like – that we abide by and by which we communicate. Psychoanalysis has the capacity to deal with the group, without losing sight of the fact that it is constituted of individuals. It is not possible to have a discourse about the environment, built and unbuilt, or a discourse about cities and landform, and its inhabitants, without recourse to the social group. Lets wager: if we could articulate our social codes, and in particular our architectural codes, in ways that are at least momentarily evident to us (we imagine the first utterances of Vitruvius’ primitives had this freshness), we could do two things:

1. position ourselves within this symbolic field, in more than imaginary ways, and

2. understand our relation to our habitat in ways that may lead us out of an environmental catastrophe.

Big Other (Lacan, Autre, Freud das Andere) + little other (Lacan, autre or objet petit a). In Lacan’s notation, A & a. Imagine, like Rossi, that architecture is constituted as a body of architectural signs; imagine that it formed an architectural language within which particular architectural acts happen, called buildings, and which makes them possible, rather than simply the material fact of buildings. It’s like when Eisenman distinguishes Architecture from architecture.

Freud refers to der Andere (an other person) and to das Andere (Otherness or Alterity). In The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud borrows the term, eine anderer Schauplatz or eine andere lokalität (the other scene) from G T Fechner, to refer to the scene of dreams as other than the scene of ideational life. He stresses that it is not a physical or anatomical place. Lacan describes the scene of the dream as being ‘between perception and consciousness’ [Four Concept… p56], partaking of neither.

Lacan maintains Freud’s distinction between big or upper case Other (the unconscious) and little or lower case other (other person, other object, significant other). He refers to the Other as a field, the field of the Other. In architectural terms, it is a limitless field of operation rather than a spatial figure bounded by walls or other notation for edges.

‘[T]he Other must first of all be considered a locus, the locus in which speech is constituted.’ [S3 p274] The Other is the locus of language, the law, and other social codes, what in Lacan’s text is known as the symbolic order generally. Speech does not originate in the ego but in the Other. Speech is constituted outside the subject and conforms to its own language rules to which the subject must submit if it wants to speak. This is no less true of the architect who wants to practice than it is of the orator who wants to speak. The field of the Other is constituted of all the codes that bind a group. It is limitless or always incomplete, something is always absent or lacking, preventing its totalisation or formation as a whole body, in the sense that it is never possible to enumerate all the signifiers in a signifying chain, which leads Lacan to signify the Other with a slashed A. The slash of the cut, wound, disfiguration, or castration.

‘This schema [Lacan’s Schema L diagram] signifies that the condition of the subject, S, (neurosis or psychosis), depends on what unfolds in the Other, A. What unfolds there is articulated like a discourse (the unconscious is the Other’s discourse [the discourse of the Other]), whose syntax Freud first sought to define for those fragments of it that reach us in certain privileged moments, such as dreams, slips, and witticisms.

‘Why would the subject be interested in this discourse if he were not a party to it? He is, indeed, insofar as he is drawn to the four corners of the schema: namely, S, his ineffable and stupid existence; a, his objects; a’, his ego, that is, his form as reflected in his objects; and A, the locus from which the question of his existence may arise for him.’ [‘On a question prior…’ in Ecrits pp458-9]’

The little other is a reflection of our ego. It is different from me, hence it is other, but it is what I identify with. It has the illusory completeness of objects, which makes it both the object of jealousy and identification. Elsewhere Lacan links aggression and identification [think of that movie Single White Female, in which becoming like you, is a way of replacing you in your own flat and in your love life]. If the little other is always outside us, hence ultimately alienating, the spatiality of the Other is deliciously ambiguous. It is outside us and inside us at the same time. Language always comes from outside us, we are born into it, it comes from our parents, it begins for the infant when the mother punctuates it’s cries, although we internalise it in order to speak.

If we are attentive to the social and other codes that bind us as individuals, rather than to the objects to which we collectively identify (nation states, particular places or buildings), we will be able to address the collective as a multitude of individuals, rather than the collective as an illusory unity. Arguably, this was Aldo Rossi’s project in Architecture of the City. In order to build his theory of types, Rossi was attentive to the anonymous buildings that constitute the city, to an exploration of their clear, formal, serial, historically situated, language. He never articulates buildings and places, but only a language of buildings and places. Another example is Serlio’s definition of the three modes of discourse – the tragic, comedic, and idyllic – as a function of the language of expression of objects rather than the objects themselves or their localities. Another example would be Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, a kind of ethnography of the language of city life.

Big Other and little other                                           or social codes and social objects

Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis (New York: Norton Press, 1981).
Jacques Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book III: The Psychoses 1955-1956 (NYC: Norton, 1993).                                   Jacques Lacan, ‘On a Question Prior to any Possible Treatment of Psychosis (1958)’ in Ecrits: the first complete edition in English (New York: W W Norton, 2006) pp. 445-88.

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 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Multitude                                                                                                     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.