Vision and the psychotic

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Let us speculate that the psychotic subject has a form of vision that we call parallel vision, and that this is a question of conception not fact (anatomic, optic, or otherwise). The psychotic subject is not without unity or coherence but it is not the unity imposed upon the subject by the linguistic environment in which most subjects dwell (what Lacan calls the symbolic order). Language binds the subject into a single point of perception and thought. The coherence of the psychotic subject is the coherence of parallel lines. S/he slides along the striations of a layered space. S/he sees one thing many times when the neurotic sees many things once. It is more objective, in the way that the elevation and the axonometric drawing are more objective than the perspective drawing. In the elevation and the axon, the lines of construction are parallel; the world appears from all or no points of view. There is no projection and no points of projection; the world is simply stamped onto the drawing paper the way a penny is pressed into clay. By contrast, in the perspective drawing, the world appears from a point of view. It is the model of a certain form of inter-subjectivity. It is inter-subjective because it is cross-checkable with other subjects, and so constitutes the space of the shared external world.

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The psychotic subject is typically regarded as disorganised and detached from the shared world of others. In Freudian and Lacanian analysis, this is regarded as a fundamental loss. In the paper ‘Neurosis and Psychosis’ (1923), Freud describes the psychotic subject’s delusion as a ‘patch’ placed over the ‘rent’ where the ego would have been attached to the external world. For Lacan, the external world is the inter-subjective world shared by many subjects, may subjectivities joined together by a shared linguistic or symbolic environment. Lacan describes the psychotic subject’s disengagement with the joined up world of others as a loss of symbolic authority: the name of the father, i.e., the symbolic father, authorises the symbolic world for the subject. In the case of the psychotic, it was never assimilated in the subject’s development. In Lacan’s paper ‘On a Question Prior to any Possible Treatment of Psychosis’ (1958), it is foreclosed to the subject (note the real estate terminology).

Perspective is a model for a certain form of organised vision, in which all angles within the cone of vision come to a single point. It enjoys the elevated status in western thought as the formula for reality, because it colludes so closely with the egos view of itself and its relation to the world. In philosophy, perspective is often associated with concepts of the self. The internal world of Descartes’ Cogito is pictured as a single point of self defining doubt vis-à-vis an extended triangulated external world. Because this cone of vision is an analogue of the way optics works, perspective is also regarded as reality. Moreover, the perspective model of eye (point of projection) – window (picture plane) – city (world) provides an easily understood geometric model for the relation between the interior of the subject’s psyche and exterior worlds of shared space.

Psychotics see perfectly well, although without the agency of the symbolic father; it is how they relate themselves to the shared world of others that is different; they are not attached to the world the way we are; nor do they join it up the way we do. We can reflect this in a diagram for vision in which the perspective cone of vision is foreclosed to the subject, leaving him/her in a parallel world.


st louis double exposure

Lorens Holm, photomontage of downtown St. Louis, 1990

Place-making – still popular amongst planners in search of a legitimate and certain practice – is derived from a watered-down phenomenology. We attribute the failure of place-making to the phenomenological concept of place as a locus of qualities. In other words, to the place bit of place-making. The making bit is potentially ok. There is an unspoken but underlying phenomenological approach to city thinking that privileges sense experience and has led directly to thinking about places as if they were constituted of qualities. This has led to city planning full of places with terrible qualities because they fail to engender any genuine engagement with the architectural environment. It is precisely the attempt to build qualities that screens or cuts off the occupant from its environment. Think of all the plaster-board Il Redentores that clutter our cities. What is missed is thinking the environment as a grammar-like construction for subject-object relations. Grammar is the structure of a language. The idea of subject-object is borrowed from grammar and grammar is theorised in linguistics. Subject-object only exist in so far as they are positions in a grammar. They exist only within a structured system, the more highly structured, the better. If we want to understand the conditions under which can obtain a genuine, resilient, enduring engagement with the architectural environment, we could do worse than look to the ways we structure our environments and the objects in them. We could do worse than to look sideways at both linguistics and psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysis is where subject-object are most fully worked out within the realm of human affairs.

We need to start thinking the city as a structured space in which subject-object are defined as positions relative to each other. How can we talk about a grammar of space, of which the city is an emergent property? How can we talk about the city as a system that has a position for a subject? Film studies talks about the film-goer, which film addresses generically, and which has certain attributes that film is designed for [the 24 frames per second subject]. The economy has its labourer and its capitalist, which exist entirely as functions of the money system. Literature has its reader and its author, such that Barthes could proclaim the death of the author [1967] and Foucault could ask what is an author [1969]. Architectural thinking is not completely bereft of the subject, but it needs to be developed. City studies has the flaneur [1863] for instance, the detached man in the crowd who watches people flow by. This subject is invoked or called into being by the boulevard and its multitudes. For Geddes, the city is an interactive knowledge-scape that invokes, like the agora, the informed voter or participant in democracy. In this view, you cannot have an informed participant of democracy without a certain type of city, not because you cannot vote in the countryside, but because the informed voter is a position defined by a type of city that functions as a knowledge landscape for its inhabitants. [Note – the flaneur is invoked by the boulevard; the agora invokes the participant in democracy] We need to be able to ask of any space, who is its subject?

The phenomenological concept of place, as it is used by architects, is infantilising. If a place is thought as a container for qualities, then the question about places becomes a question about the qualities you like (do you like red? a fountain for the missus?). The subject of place is reduced to a grasper after qualities. Consensus becomes impossible because everyone likes something different. And no one really cares what you like, anyway. Architecture is not about what you want, but about living a good life. As soon as we get away from making places and instead start making structure, we will find that the architectural environment is full of good places to be.

Lets pretend that posts can have footnotes.
In architects’ phenomenological discourse, place is always singular. It is always place, never places, even though place is a ‘thing’ word like car or hat, and not a ‘stuff’ word like, e.g., space, hair, or water. This tends to elevate its status: place becomes an abstract and hallowed concept that sometimes deigns to touch down upon the surface of the earth and bless us with an infusion of its metaphysical content. Imagine if we had hat, which sometimes infused the things we put on our heads with the quality of hatness. We can help to undermine phenomenological discourse amongst architects simply by attending to our language. Always use places [plural] rather than place [singular], in cases were we are not referring to a particular place, but to places generally.

The subject of architecture

st louis in two acts small (scene of crime)

Psychoanalytic theory, as it is articulated in the text of Freud and Lacan, is the most systematic, extended, and closely observed account of the human subject. It is a spatial subject. To cite a few examples. Freud referred to the discovery of the unconscious as his Copernican revolution because it decentred the subject from its conscious world. Desire after Lacan is about position, the position of an object with respect to a subject. And Lacan argued that Freud’s detail, Wo Es war, soll Ich werden, is about where? not who?

Arguably, the problem with the architectural avant-garde – the critique that emerged in the 1970s in response to modernism – is that it was not able to articulate a sufficiently resilient account of its subject, the subject of architecture and the city. Deconstruction (predominant in America) and phenomenology (UK), both of which philosophies were drafted in by architects to theorise their architecture and urban practices, are inadequate to the task. In 1978, Mario Gandelsonas asks who/what is the subject of architecture, ‘the subject as origin and determinant of the architectural object….’ In structuralism, the subject is a function of structure. The linguistic subject is made possible by the systematic structuring of language by Saussure. Gandelsonas again: ‘At the point when this object [i.e. architecture, urbanism] becomes clearly, and almost autonomously, defined in its systematic internal, formal relations then does the subject take on a clear configuration. In linguistic terms the definition of an organisation as a normative system, which in architecture would be the constitutive rules of the object, implies at the same time its subject.’ Arguably, Eisenman’s syntactical project made it possible to articulate an architectural subject.

It is unclear why Gandelsonas’ question is never clearly taken up, never given more currency in architecture.

It is unclear why Eisenman and Tschumi flirt with, but never engage with Lacan, in the way that they collaborated with Derrida.

One of the strengths of psychoanalysis is that it does not lead so easily to form the way Deconstruction could lead so quickly to plan fragmentation (the enjoyment of a problematic unity) and phenomenology to touchy feely surface treatment (the comforts of interior design). The consequences for architecture of the desiring decentred subject is never worked through.

Long before the IAUS folded in the early 1980s, the post-structuralist critique of the modern object had collapsed into the stylistic post-modernism we recognise in plasterboard Il Redentores.

Perhaps this po-mo is an instance of the repression of the unconscious by the ego.

Mario Gandelsonas, ‘From Structure to Subject: The Formation of an Architectural Language’ in Oppositions 17 (1978) pp6-29. Lorens Holm, photomontage, Beckett in St. Louis, 1990.