Special equivalence

(the following is a brief series of thoughts for a seminar discussion on Jameson's writings on architecture, the chapter on the Gehry house in particular: as such, it involves less of a conscious updating of the framework and more of a recapitulation and drawing out of potential lines of critique. Still, might be of possible interest to some who read this.)

Typos may be symptomatic, but that doesn’t assure that anything particularly compelling will result from excavating the often not very absent cause. A slip of the fingers: in “today’s modern world,” we live according to doxa of speed and virtuosity: nothing new here. To be sure, a hidden compulsion to type modern as momurn would, at least superficially, give reason for pause. (What psychic forces at work for the “wrong hand” to twitch, what combinations of guilt and nerve endings…)

This irrelevance is all the more so when considering mass production (as the book above). The lesson at hand is indeed something of a double-loss of aura: the "false" (as in, seemingly without origin or discernible source) nature of the mechanically reproduced object lays bare the non-care and sloppiness that marks it quite literally: misspellings, missing punctuation, other consequences of the death of craft production in the name of the rapid circuits of turnover and warehouse clearing.

That said, the typo can be a happy accident, either a physical, mechanical, or digital (think of spell-check word replacement) slip that exposes an unseen corner of further thought. (I recall my accidental mistype of Murnau's film Sunrise as "Signrise", which, at best, led me to think through the world of that film differently and, at worst, can be sold to a deconstructionist film adaptation company.) The rather glaring word substitution in the Duke volume of Jameson's Postmodernism, or the cultural logic of late capitalism is this sort of convenient screw-up.

The typo? The essay on architecture, titled "Spatial equivalents in the world system", finds itself retitled in the footnotes as "Special equivalents in the world system."

The point here is that we might reformulate Jameson's essay around this second, unintended title, to draw out the crucial moves of the text, to think further about the specificity of its economic background, and to gesture to what might ultimately be a significant misreading.

For what the false title generates is perhaps a sharper formulation of the very status of the commodity under late capitalism, that of special equivalence. Aside from the general economic logic of late capitalism/postfordism (its moves toward flexible production, increasing emphasis on technologically streamlined and facilitated modes of distribution and global routing, general overproduction in the manufacturing sector leading to the desperate turn toward less surplus-value producing "service sector" work, and an even further degradation of entire sections of the globe, particular the "global south", to the vicious cycle of war, false bandages of humanitarian aid, and the continual destruction of local land and productive capacities), late capitalism is doubly marked by its "postmodern turn," by the permeation and ultimate inseperability of culture and the economy.

This should not, however, be read in the sense of the rise of the Culture Industry or even an increase investment in cultural production and consumption: rather, it is economic consumption under the "baleful spell" (to borrow Adorno's formulation) of cultural differentiation. In other words, in the wake of the disappearing radical workers movements that came variously crashing down or deradicalizing in the 70's, class identity as such no longer served as either a welcome or viable marker of social identity. It is here that one can increasingly witness the anti-Utopian offspring of the supposedly schizoid fragmentation and birth of identitarian movements of the long 60's. For capitalism itself mirrors this centrifugal disintegration and restabilization, but not through avant-garde culture or mass politics, art or affirmations of radical subject positions: through the microdifferentiation of consumer identity, the turning of the "creative classes" into those responsible for the endless hairsplitting of focus groups, the new consumerism of the 80's, the ideological backbone of neoliberalism, and, last but certainly not least, the emergence of that vicious historical chimera, the yuppies who reveled in the hollowed out shell of a post-Utopian world.

The commodities that populate this world are special equivalents: at once the utter commensurability of all commodities, yet with the impossible promise of their capacity to differentiate their consumer, that one can be at once utterly singular as a constellation of personal tastes and eccentricities (the taming of the schizophrenic imagination leads directly to Hot Topic and bad emo) yet cognizable as such, that others in that self-prescribed nebula can detect the pseudo-logic that connects one's love of David Bowie with one's choice to buy a Volvo.

To turn to architecture, then, and the moves of Jameson's text. The occasion for his piece is a meditation on the sudden apparent American "appetite for architecture" in postmodernism, posed against the don't-ask-don't-tell stance of American modernity. However, as Jameson astutely detects, something is off in this taste, in that it cannot be seen properly as a taste for architecture itself. Rather, it is an appetite for the material image, for the photographic record of the built world, not that world itself. In short, we chart a path here from building (unvisited, unloved, unthought, unmourned) to the celebratory semi-vacuity of the image to, and here is where it gets more interesting, the residual after-effects of architecture and its particular set of inquiries and problems, a certain return of the architectural historical repressed. On the one hand, this takes a concrete form in the postmodern architect's hearkening back to the tactile (think especially of Gehry's buildings after the house) as an echo of the building practices of the late moderns, particularly Kahn, and their use of richly textured, expensively variegated materials.

But in a sharp turn, Jameson turns from the specifics of which residues themselves seem modern or pre-modern to argue, rather, that it is the very fact and mobilization of these residues (and not the emergence of a postmodern Novum) that is a vital task:

The modernist way of doing all this [the consideration as textual] would be to organize it around the individual styles and names, which are more distinctive than the individual works: the residual after-effects of modernism are as tangible in the methods works solicit as they are in the latter’s structures, and not the least significant inquiry about the postmodern… consists in examining these residues and speculating as to their necessity. (99)

The residues relevant to his consideration of the Gehry house (as both cipher for and exceptional case to the tendencies of postmodern architecture more broadly) are the centrifugal and the wrapping. But beyond the creation of "hyperspace" and all its Baudrillardian phantasms, might we not see this as an allegory of the deep tectonic shifts in the economic base of late capitalism? Indeed, what do we confront if not the doubled tendential solutions of the late capitalist American financial landscape (from the collapse of Bretton Woods and the dollar being pegged to gold in '71, the oil crisis in '73, stock market jitters throughout the 70's, let alone the utter destruction of labor politics and their mass support in the Reagan years): the solutions of globalization (including not just the tentacular reaches of capital into new realms but also the new currency speculation and rise of deregulated markets) and repackaging of old needs - including those which were never recognized as needs in the first place - as injunctions toward commodity consumption.

Indeed, this is borne out by Jameson's particular discussion of the wrapper, which occupies more of the essay's attention than its corollary of centrifugal spin-off: what is perpetuated by the wrapper is
that none of the parts are new, and it is repetition rather than radical innovation that is henceforth at stake. The problem lies in the resultant paradox that it is on this renunciation of the new or the novum that the claim to historic originality of postmodernism in general, and postmodern architecture in particular, is founded. (104)

So too emerges, in systemically mirrored fashion, the commodity logic of the special equivalent: out of repetition arrives the new, particularly in the combinatory logic of commensurable but seemingly unique items. So too the Gehry house, which uses "common materials" (equally exchangeable: a chain link fence is a chain link fence is a chain link fence) to produce pseudo-new sites and spaces, wrapping the old bourgeois identity (and its fantasies of subjectivity through property ownership) in mass objects so as to declare itself unrepeatable, uncopyable. If the simulacrum is the copy without an origin, the postmodern house is the fantasy of the mass object metamorphosized into its singular future. With the right wrapping, aura reclaims the world historical stage.

To skip ahead (through the discussion of the architectural equivalent of Deleuze's cinema books, of architecture thinking space architecturally, through the abstract non-situation of hyperspace, toward the massification of the "bad trip" subject, which, it should be argued, is nothing new, insofar as we recall a century marked by war trauma: what is new is the valorization of the crazy as something to be valorized, the new consumer culture of the "misfit", precisely mobilized by capitalism in order to suggest that the schizoid fragmentation of the bad trip should result in the comforting recuperation of consumer repatriation into new non-national, non-political categories of mass subcultures) to two final points: the question of the "plan" and the consequences of Jameson's misreading of Debord.

If we boil down, and add the emphasis to which I've been gesturing here and in other writings (where my Tafuri obsession tends to rear its head), the various qualifications of how to think the "three spaces" of the Gehry house (the "original" house and its spaces, the wrapping and additions themselves, and the new spaces created between the two), we might rewrite them as such

1 (the original house): modern but not modernist, a definitive marker of the American suburban landscape, precisely not a sign of international high modernism

2 (the wrapping materials themselves) modernist in their look, like constructivist slabs, and their ambition to transform everyday space, but profoundly unmodernist in relation to the “plan”, to the vision of ordering space and the Utopian work of starting anew, of intervening in space, rather than leaving the bourgeois object to shine through its gilded framework

3 (the spaces between 1 and 2) postmodern to the core, in its echoes of the messy colonization of psychic and geographical spaces of late capitalism, that which declares even the empty zones between acts of building to be subject to its logic: the end of the outside itself, intentional accidents and non-plans repeated in an illusion of non-order that is ultimately calculated precisely to produce the effect of heterogeneity

We can see this not just in the building itself but in the transformation of how the image relates to the building, no longer as the blueprint (think here of Marx’s recognition that man is an architect, not a bee) but as the capturing of the already built. No longer the utopian work of the plan but the capturing of the building as after-effect itself:

The project, the drawing, is then one reified substitute for the real building, but a “good” one, that makes infinite Utopian freedom possible. The photograph of the already existing building is another substitute, but let us say a “bad” reification – the illicit substitution of one order of things for another, the transformation of the building into the image of itself, and a spurious image at that. (124-125)

To end, then, we should a shift Jameson detects in the role of the aesthetic/phenomenal new in its attack on "representation," no longer an attack on the general state of fallen social life itself but an attack between competing modes of representation, of sign systems at war for primacy in a battle that ultimately may have little consequence. However, this reasoning undergirds his misreading of Debord, the full consequences of which I leave for discussion.

Jameson notes that:

"The image," said Debord in a famous theoretical move, "is the final form of commodity reification"; but he should have added, "the material image," the photographic reproduction. (125)

No, he shouldn't have. The very power in Debord's thought on this issue lies in the fact that the emergence of late capitalism (i.e. society of the spectacle) is indeed the moment of the material image, but precisely not the photograph, if anything, a resolutely modern object in the materiality of its imageness. Rather, it is the materiality of the world becoming as-if-image, the world made pseudo itself, the utter indistinguishability of the now-evacuated Utopian longing of the plan and the tourist snapshot of the Bilbao museum.

This was perhaps not thinkable at the moment Jameson wrote this, but we should insist that with 20 years more behind us, the force of Debord's thinking has little to do with the literal image itself and everything to do with what Jameson points toward, namely the cracks and fissures of the world-as-image (not the world of images) out of and through which seep the excess of real material life that can't be contained by either the financial architecture or real built architecture of finance and its parasitic urban development. Perhaps now we need a different kind of special equivalence, not the equivalence of commodities that declare themselves singular but a singular form of equivalence, a special kind of universality that has been and can be again the banner of mass radical politics. Not the equivalence of the given world but of an attack on that world constructed in collective thought that renders us equivalent against the real consequences of a world gone false.

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