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.


architecture >< community


World Trade Towers, New York                                    IJburg, Amsterdam

The role of architecture in the formation and deformation of social groups:

1. symbolic, based on the image of the object.

2. territorial, based on the plan.

Both, in their respective ways, place-based.

The originary narrative is by Vitruvius, in which primitive man emerges from the forest to gather around an open hearth, and once gathered, decides to speak, and once speaking, agrees to build. Let us assume that the first decisions, the decisions to congregate and speak, were taken by individuals simultaneously, in silence, a kind of spontaneous eruption of speech due to social friction – what today we would call flash-mob. The second decision, the decision to build, was a group decision that was made possible by the discovery of speech.

CC some rights reserved Pat Bianculli from Brooklyn, NY, United States/ CC some rights reserved Attribution: Debot


massoncover b&w

Andre Masson, drawing after Gustave Courbet’s L’Origine du Monde (1866).

In 1955, Lacan and his second wife Sylvia purchased Gustave Courbet’s L’Origine du Monde to hang in their country house at Guitrancourt. Because it is so explicitly genital, they felt compelled to conceal it behind a drawing. They hung Origine in a cabinet and commissioned Silvia’s brother-in-law, the surrealist painter and traumatised WW1 veteran André Masson to draw Origine upon its wooden door. Courbet’s painting shows the languid torso of a naked woman with her legs spread across an unmade bed. No head. Masson’s line drawing looks like a landscape. It hovers between the picturesque and the arabesque, an enigmatic writing, somewhere between bush and glyph. Silvia’s sister Rose was married to Masson. Silvia had been married to Lacan’s colleague, the surrealist writer critic pornographer and librarian Georges Bataille. Bataille had earlier commissioned Masson’s drawing of the headless victim of self-sacrifice, for the cover of the first issue of his review Acephale (1936). Lacan and Sylvia had a daughter Judith in 1941 and finally married in 1953. Until the early 1950s, Judith went by the name Bataille. Neither Judith nor Lacan’s children by Marie-Louise his first wife – Caroline (1937) Thibaut (1939) and Sibylle (1940) – knew that Lacan was her father. It is not clear if Bataille’s other/older daughter Laurence (1930) knew.

Lacan had a double family that seemed to complicate the already agonistic relation between his speech and writing. Entangled in this narrative are a number of threads about concealing and revealing desire, the dialogue between image and text, and the role of names, family names or otherwise. Origine is an innocuous name for what is essentially a ‘money shot’ [Lacan paid 1.5 million francs for it]. Both the Bataille daughters, Judith and Laurence, became psychoanalysts like père Lacan. Judith married Jacques-Allain Miller who is today the leading Lacanian analyst and executor of Lacan’s literary estate.

Lacan’s two principle outputs, not including the analysts he trained, were papers published in psychoanalytic journals, a collection of which was published during his lifetime as Ecrits (1966), and the book-length Seminars. For almost 30 years Lacan gave a weekly seminar, each year a different theme. Lacan was known for his theatrical delivery. There is a film on Lacan that includes a lecture at Université Catholique de Louvain. Lacan speaks in trajectories preceded by silences. The words emerge from his body fully gestured as if his speech is born on the internal pressure of language. His gaze moves restlessly around the room as if he reads that which comes from within, in the space around him. He speaks without a text. Apparently it was difficult for Lacan to commit the seminars to print and in her biography of Lacan, Roudinesco suggests that it was only when he became concerned about safeguarding his legacy later in life that he was driven to publish them. It is easy to understand why. There is the inevitable flattening effect of print when so much of the significance of his speech was carried on its trajectory. We all also know the horror of having what you said inscribed in the world for all to scrutinize. Speech holds a central position in Lacan’s theory and practice. We can assume that he was loved his own speech, that he returned to it like an object of affection, that it oriented him. Theoretically, speech was critical to Lacan as a mode of being. We exist by speaking: he coined the term parlêtre [speak-being] for the speaking subject. Psychoanalysis is called the talking cure, because it is through speech that the subject positions him/herself in relation to the field of Others.

Speech and writing have always had a problematic relationship. Plato argued that speech is the guarantor of writing because meaning is present in the living breath of the speaker, and writing is a poor replacement. At best writing falsifies, at worst, it kills speech. My speech is mine, until I give it away as writing. Derrida, contra Plato, argues that speech is not privileged. It has no claim of priority on writing; my precious meaning is no more fully present in my speech than in the writing that I subsequently conceal it with; if meaning is deferred in writing, it is equally deferred in speech.

Only the eleventh seminar, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis (1973), was published before Lacan’s death in 1981. Lacan placed son-in-law Miller in charge of transcribing the seminars, and preparing them for publication. They continue to be published as books whose texts are compiled from Lacan’s notes, stenographers notes, the seminar notes of his students, some tape recordings, and memories, even. There are as many versions as there were students, bootlegs, concordances; they are open to correction, interpretation, and exegesis. Miller has gone to court to successfully quash attempts to publish counter versions, and even to open up the notes to other interpretations, despite protest from the scholarly community that he has imposed his own. What is at stake is the difference between speech and writing. There is a question of who is the author of the Seminars (Lacan or Miller), or whether there is a difference between author (Lacan) and transcriber (Miller). The scholarly community claims that there is an originary text by Lacan (a seminar) compiled from verbal and written sources and transcribed/assembled by Miller, whose transcription should be open to revision in order to be faithful to Lacan’s original voice. Miller claims the original is a book authored by Lacan, all copies of which must be protected by law.

Why would architects read Lacan? Psychoanalysis is primarily about understanding and positioning the self, not knowledge, although sometimes understanding and position lead to knowledge. What would psychoanalysis help architects to understand about their position in the field of Others, that would help them in the pursuit of their practice?

1. Reality

In a practice such as architecture that prides itself on its close attachment to a materialist reality, it might help us in our pursuit of architecture as a critical practice, to appreciate just how tenuous, how constructed the status of reality is. [see Research]

2. Speech

In a practice that depends so much upon briefing, upon the capacity of a client to speak, it might help if we could understand more fully just how alienated the speaking subject is from his/her own language. Your client will be so alienated from language that s/he will struggle to articulate what s/he wants. The architect is in the position to create the stage upon which desire plays itself out. Let me show you how to live. Let me show you how to desire.

3. Desire

In a practice whose front line is an encounter between the desire of two subjects, yours and your clients, it might help us to realise just how labyrinthine the path to desire is. Shigeru Ban said that architecture is desire spatialised. The client gives the architect a brief, which is a wish list, and the architect is supposed to satisfy them with a space [for you Lacanians: the subject supposed to satisfy, the subject supposed to spacify]. We pretend desire is simple and stable. But the advertising industry is predicated upon the mutability of desire. And anyone who has ever had children knows that we usually want what we cannot have, or what someone else has, or what someone else wants, or what is not good for us, or what – when we get it – we realise we didn’t want after all. We forget that desire is always dissembled [repressed]. It is disguised and pressed into pathways both labyrinthine and continuous that extend to the far corners of the world; such that it is immediately understandable – even if reprehensible – how it was impossible for Frank Lloyd Wright to build a house without having an affair.

4. Subject

Anyone interested in the question of who the subject of architecture is and how to think about it, in other words, in answering the question of who architecture is for, may want to glance sideways at psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysis is the most systematic account of the subject, an account that is both ruthlessly empirical and highly theorised. As Gandelsonas has argued, once architecture is theorized as a closed system with a structure, in the way that language is theorised in linguistics, it becomes possible to speak about subject and object in architecture. They emerge together in structure. Gandelsonas was referring to what Eisenman was able to do with his early House Projects. The architectural avant-garde of the 1960s 70s and 80s [Rossi, Eisenman, et al.] was ripe for an exploration of subjectivity. Arguably, the two philosophies to which the avant-garde aligned itself, deconstruction and phenomenology, failed to provide an adequate theory of the subject, and without it, the critique of modernism slumped into an uncritical embrasure [sic] of style. Psychoanalysis assumes that subject-other and subject-object are constructed relations. As architects, used to the idea of assembly drawings, let us speak about the assembled self. You are not a ReadyMade, not to yourself, not to others, or at least not a simple one.

5. Critique

Anyone interested in how architectural creation may be extended as a critical activity, may be interested in how the talking cure was made systematic in the post-structural thinking and practice of Lacan. [see Subject]

6. Research

Anyone interested in how architectural creation may be extended as research, may be interested in collaboration, in particular the collaboration of words and images. Words and images collaborate to think what they cannot think alone. Collaboration is a form of research. I concluded Brunelleschi Lacan Le Corbusier (2010) by arguing that there is a divide between words and images that needs to be sutured, the one direction going toward narrative, sequence, impregnation, the temporal; the other towards vision, surface, the instant, a glittering self-captivation that only spectacle can produce [we glimpse this captivation every time we ‘stage’ ourselves in a mirror]. In order to make space we need both. We are always already suturing, a kind of back and forth process. We construct space: this is what it means to be in it as spatial beings. Space is not a simple given, it is not the origine of our world. We don’t find ourselves in space, as if it were a matter of opening our eyes to passive experience. It is hard to imagine what kind of gaping horror vacui would remain without the suturing of word and image, of thought and perception, into the world of spatial experience. It would not include us. To Lacanians, this knotting is familiar. It is a version of Lacan’s tripartite framework – the Symbolic the Imaginary and the Real – without which, Lacan insisted time and again, it is impossible to understand psychoanalytic experience. What most of us would regard as normal material reality is constituted of the Symbolic and Imaginary registers of experience; what Lacan calls the Real, no one has ever heard of. [see Reality]

Mario Gandelsonas, ‘From Structure to Subject: The Formation of an Architectural Language’ in Oppositions (1978) pp6-29.               Elisabeth Roudinesco, Jacques Lacan: an outline of a life and a history of a system of thought (Columbia University Press, 1997) translated by Barbara Bray. Cf. chapter 16 ‘A Double Life’ pp179-190 and chapter 31 ‘History of the Seminar’ pp413-27. This is the authoritative biography of Lacan to date.                                                                                                                                              For the film, see Francoise Wolff, director, Jacques Lacan parle (Jacques Lacan speaks) production RTBF, 1982. You can find it on YouTube.