Correlation, Contingency, Trauma

Talk given at the conference Proto/Eco/Logics: Speculative Materialism in Architecture

Architecture is a de facto regional – that is, limited – field, or horizon of knowledge and practice which, however, here aspires to approach its project in a way that is not simply determined by the continual transformation of inherited forms and traditions but which draws on a universal account of matter – matter as information, an account enabled by computation. Such a practice would approach its sites in view of their contingent implication in the same material processes it seeks to mobilise in its technique. It therefore wishes to access a real beyond its regional ontology, a real within which its projects and procedures have always been implicated but which has hitherto been conceived and utilized myopically, in terms overdetermined its local exigencies and intentions. Whereas this new architecture, presumably, must continue to respond to these exigencies and intentions, its response would be expanded and augmented by exposure to its immanent outside.

I would like to trace some parallels between the problems this raises for architecture and the question raised by a number of contemporary philosophers: How do we think a real that does not depend on thinking for its existence.

A new generation of thinkers – known, for better or worse, as ‘speculative realists’, have proposed various strategies for overcoming the obstacles to a realism, obstacles that had formed the mainstay of philosophy in the twentieth century, and which were also present in the form of an institutional exhaustion, an ‘end of philosophy’, an end to speculative thought.

This turn away from a speculative philosophy seeking to determine reality toward a critical philosophy that interrogated the conditions which thought imposes upon reality, finds its origin in Kant, the thinker who first posited that objectivity is a function of synthesis in thought. It is thought that forms objects, and objects cannot validly be said to exist in and of themselves.

This re-centring in which the object revolves around the subject, Kant called the Copernican revolution in philosophy, but as we shall see this is a particularly flagrant misnomer since, arguably, Kant charts an inverse trajectory for thought to the progressive corrosion of human conceit which Copernicus initiated, and which Reza has already discussed. The Copernican trajectory consists in the revelation of a universe that is de-centred, in which the image of the world spontaneously manifested to man – his regional field of projects and procedures – is undermined by an account of the materiality of the universe as indifferent to man and as largely unmanifested to unmediated human experience. The Kantian critical trajectory, on the other hand, consists in an epistemological finitisation and focalization of the universe, now understood as mere phenomena, within experience.

Classical rationalism held that thought has access to the being of things: a certain discipline of thought allows us to know something about being. Kant tells us that we only have access to phenomena. This is therefore a philosophy of finitude, it seeks to identify the limits of our thought. Reality as we know it is a synthesis, our consciousness takes up something from outside itself and synthesizes it in a certain way. It is thus also a philosophy of form and matter: the matter of sensation is subject to a synthetic formation that belongs to thought, namely, for Kant, the spatiotemporal forms of intuition. So something does impinge on our consciousness, but all that we can say of it for certain is what form it will take – because this is the specific form of knowledge that we have. Knowledge of reality as conceived by classical philosophical rationalism is impossible, because we no longer have any knowledge of the relation between object as phenomena and possible object in itself. We critique the pretentions of knowledge, put it in its place, identify its limits.

In rescinding the divine guarantee of the purchase of thought upon being, we admit that the objects we perceive are not separate from us but are formed by us, in relation to our forms of intuition, and ultimately to our grounding sense of ourselves: every object is correlated to a subject.

This is what has been dubbed, by Quentin Meillassoux, ‘correlationism’.

Disturbed by the threat of skepticism, Kant invented a new type of thought: the transcendental – a thought that asks questions, not of the reality of the objects we experience, but of the conditions under which they must appear to us.

This tendency extends into a great deal of twentieth century thought, it simply being a matter of where one locates the principles of this focal synthesis, this shaping of reality by thought: language, social consensus, economic formation, or indeed the organization of space. The result is that the problems of the real, of matter and of nature become problems of access.

This is particularly radicalized by phenomenology. Through relating them to the necessity of our spatial and temporal forms of experience Kant hoped to construct an a priori philosophical justification for natural science and its mathematical formulation. But phenomenology insists that before these conceptual articulations of phenomena there is the phenomena pure. We should examine what is delivered to us; remove these filters that we impose upon the data, and just look at the phenomena itself.

And for phenomenology, our relation to the phenomena is intentional: we are not abstract seats of consciousness, who passively receive the experience of a cup of coffee as an abstracted temporo-spatial object; we first of all see a cup of coffee as something to drink, in order to wake us up so we can get on with the essay we have to write: what is primary is our life-world, our projects, our relation to our projects, which is related to our knowledge of our own temporality, the fact that we will die, in short the ‘world’ in which we live and which is strictly correlated to ourselves as a particular type of being-there (Dasein). Even the division between object and subject is not as primary as it seems, because all objects we experience, we experience within a world that is bound up with ourselves as subjects, and what we experience of ourselves as subject is bound up with the objects we use.

So this really exacerbates correlationism: our knowledge is finite, and its limits are those of the bounds of a human world. Thus for Heidegger, the question is not, what can we say about being? This question already assumes too much. First we should ask: who is the type of being who asks about being? This ‘who’ comes before the abstract questioning typical of philosophy.

We know very well how these stakes play out in architecture, as architecture is called to concern itself with ‘dwelling’ in a world that is primordially defined by a belonging-together of man and world. The contrast could not be stronger between this dwelling and the ungrounding effects of Copernican corrosion, for which there can be no stable and fixed home for man.

Thus it is in parallel with the recent speculative philosophical projects which re-address the question of how we can think a reality outside correlation, which reassert the Copernican project proper over the Kantian ‘Copernican revolution’, that architecture attempts to think its materiality in ways that do not owe to this primordial belonging between man and a world that is already shaped by man’s being-there.

Pursuing this path, an architectural response to a site cannot any longer be circumscribed within the formal bounds of what we already know about the site and our intentions in relation to it; it will be informed by procedures and techniques that claim a speculative purchase on non-manifest material strata of its reality, and a technical manipulation of their potential in tandem with those of the materials with which we build. This is not only, therefore, a question of the technically-augmented formation of matter, but of material powers that computation can mobilise in ways that exceed our formal anticipations.

Now, at the same time that Kant initiates correlationism, he is also compelled to leave space for such non-correlated powers. The two places this happens in Kant’s work are in his theory of the sublime and his theory of genius. The sublime as a kind of non-experience, when the matter of nature presented in the phenomena is so great in magnitude or complexity that it renders the apparatus of synthesis dysfunctional; and artistic genius as an irruption into experience that follows nothing that went before, but which sets a new course. In both cases, matter refuses, or overflows, the forms of experience. Whereas the experience of beauty, the production of the beautiful, for Kant, is connected with a harmony, an acute correlation, between the matter of nature and the forms of our experience, the sublime is something else entirely, an excess of the powers of nature over these forms. And likewise, the genius does not form matter with a view to producing beauty, but becomes the channel for something novel to affect experience.

Both of these occurrences have the structure of a trauma, that is, an event that cannot itself be registered within experience, but which has ramifications in experience. You will remember that Freud’s theory of trauma holds that trauma is that real which does not show itself, which by definition cannot be encompassed in experience, except through traces, and which solicits a continual attempt to ‘bind’ the excessive event through symptomatic repetition.

These places where Kant is compelled to suspend the correlationist prohibition on speculation are also sites of trauma: By ‘speculative’ we mean a theoretical position that goes beyond what is immediately given, that stitches what we know of reality together in a way that, whilst coherent, and whilst offering us opportunities to rethink our world, cannot be verified empirically. To speculate is to go beyond what is or what can be given. By ‘trauma’ we mean the incising of a regionally, formally closed field by an external matter, an event which is not given within that regional field, but whose traces nevertheless appear within it and are manifested in symptoms.

Freud’s theory exhibits consciousness on the model of an organic being that must protect itself against its traumatically exorbitant source of energy and thus suicides an outer portion of itself in order to protect its integrity. Trauma is not merely an external attack upon regionally-closed; rather, universal trauma is the production mechanism and driver of the regional horizon from and into the universal field.

As we can read in the Kantian theory of the sublime and of genius, trauma names the free expression of the universe whose relation to itself is never fully interrupted by any discrete individual; any discrete individual is always pregnant with this universality that cannot be erased – the reflexivity Reza talked about. No matter what kind of localisation it undergoes, the germ of reflexivity remains within the local field, and cannot be assimilated (bound) or escape. At the same time the reaction to it – its effect – drives a certain form of myopia.

The image here is of a radically open continuum within which regional horizons are formed as a function of trauma, and which each, far from repelling it through their myopia, carry within themselves, as traces, as myopically-focalised reflections of the universal continuum, the traces of trauma.

This is the very meaning of the Copernican trajectory. Ultimately, our interiority is compromised not by the initial shock of being decentred, but when we realise that the organic compounds that subtend life and thought are synthesized from the same stardust as the sun and planets. Trauma is an inner labyrinth, not a shock from the outside.

This is the path of a geophilosophy which, as demanded by Copernicus and Darwin, and following Nietzsche, does not stop at the latter’s demand for a genealogy of thought that roots it in the traumatic enculturation of a maladapted animal crawling on the surface of the earth, but follows through to the centre of the earth’s geotraumatic body, where it harbours its secret of burning immanence with the sun, and further, beyond the solar economy into the cosmic abyss with which we share our material being.

This is a thought that, by being ‘true to the earth’ would be ‘true to the universe’. We can certainly question whether it would be desirable or even coherent for architecture to be ‘true-to-the-universe’ in this way. However it seems to me that several of the projects presented here share the ambition of introducing such a speculative trauma into the discipline of architecture, and of remaining faithful to the Copernican trajectory.

The aspiration here is to harness a materiality that is no longer correlated to dwelling nor to beauty. To register the traumatic presence, within the dwelling of architecture, of a materiality that already connects it to a universal continuum …

The conditions for this enterprise belong to the true Copernican legacy, an edifice of knowledge which itself constitutes a ‘narcissistic wound’ for the human manifest image; which is part of what we might call, after Freud, a great chain of humiliations.

To articulate this movement under the banner of ‘ecology’ may well be an oxymoron, or worse. It cannot easily be contained within the ambit of any account of dwelling, or of mutually interacting niches. Because the ‘Copernican’ nature of such an ecology would consist in surpassing not only the exigencies of human ‘worlding’, but also the ordered realm of the terrestrial organic kingdom, and even its chemical basis: we are after all talking about a highly abstracted nature approached by , mathematical or algorithmic means, a nature freed from the contingencies of what happens to have occurred within the frame of terrestrial history, and which passes beyond the limited range of phenomena our evolutionary history has conditioned us to manifest.

It is above all scientific method and computation that produces a new speculative image of matter that exceeds our spontaneous relation to nature. These systems reveal to us things that fall outside of any traditional concept of nature or matter. – matter as active agent, matter as information, matter without natural order. As an acute example – acute because it concerns our relationship to what we call ‘life’ – we could point to the contemporary relationship between biology and computation, which indicates a reconfiguration of our conception of ‘life’ (as a data structure rather than a substantial form) and a shift towards the experimental borrowing of theoretical models from chemistry, computation and physics in biology, rather than treating the biological as a special empirical science (a shift from the ‘wet-lab’ to virtual experimentation). The post-genomic biosciences, overwhelmed by masses of data, are seeking new perspectives from which to extract useful insights from it.

Like economics, also, which has recently turned to paradigms drawn from physics (‘phynance’) (and these shifts in other disiplines must be brought into the conversation we are having here), perhaps architecture is involved in a similar borrowing and experimentation, as it tries to trace its way through the labyrinth that leads from its myopia as a regional practice, to universal conditions of materiality that could underpin new practices and possibilities.

The aspiration would be to create structure that incorporates the humiliating truth that the frames within which architecture, or biology, or any other regional practice, formerly took place – these forms of experience, and these forms of building – are, as much as the site upon which we build, contingencies deposited by the local history of matter that is called ‘earth’.

Again, we need to ask whether the discourse of ecology is equal to this aspiration.

It is important to acknowledge that the notion of ‘ecosystem’ is, in various ways, a compromise formation: in its various formulations it expresses both a materialist desire and the return of various obstacles to a thoroughgoing materialism. In the sense that it fundamentally expresses the philosophical problem of obtaining a purchase on matter that is not coloured by theological, cultural or psychological predeterminations, it joins with this project we have been describing – it positions its subject within a delocalized, decentred system. But in so far as it desires, in the service of local demands or aims, to make this system into a ‘whole’, it fails – whether it produces this ‘whole’ as a simulation, or cuts it out from the world as a set of constraints and parameters to which it should conform.

It is important to acknowledge that the way in which the novel and surprising accounts of matter, complexity, and so on which we are discussing are driven by, and subject to interpretation through, pre-existing exigencies, and in many ways are still merely symptoms of the human confrontation with the Copernican universe. I would like to suggest that one need be very circumspect about the selective embrace we offer to matter – the way in which ecology always tends to return home. Even when it is a question of an ecology that consciously seeks to go beyond the innocent narrative of the stewardship of nature, to communicate with a world beyond the human-world relation, a nature beyond nature.

British filmmaker Adam Curtis’s recent documentary ‘All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace’ charts how the late-twentieth century idea of the ecosystem, as a self-correcting system of independent agents, increasingly adopted as the model for a supposedly post-political society, emerged from early attempts at computational modelling in ecology; from models which conceded far too much to the need to render the interactions of organisms computationally tractable, under the prevailing technological conditions; which significantly omitted consideration of positive feedback; and which were governed by incorrect assumptions as to the central role of equilibrium.

Curtis, quite rightly I think, aligns the popular 70s idea of Earth as closed ecosystem, in perfect balance – Buckminster Fuller’s ‘spaceship earth’ – with the emergence of a politics of systemic management of the ‘natural order of things’ – neo-liberal capitalism – and the strange affinity of this politics which claims to be post-political, with environmentalism. He skillfully narrates the connections between the rise of the personal computer and ‘network society’ and hippy experiments in cybernetic self-regulating communality housed in Fullerian geodesic domes. Against the idea that the complex network would level nations, classes, and hierarchies of power, resulting in a flat meshwork where equal members form a global, spontaneously equilibriated system, he calls for an awareness that these supposedly self-equilibriating systems are in fact both determined in advance by externalities and continually subject to control and intervention.

But what is notable is that when Curtis critiques the contemporary ideological usage of this now-obsolesced concept of ecosystem, he merely confronts one compromise formation in the name of another – the reintroduction of human political agency qua separated from nature. That is, Curtis suggests that in order to counteract the unwarranted transfer of the cybernetic paradigm to human beings, and its deleterious social effects, its dissolution of human history into natural matter, to we have to move back to a notion of human political agency that can act in a discontinuous and voluntaristic way against its implication in ‘nature’. Not a dissimilar position to the politics of Badiou, and in particular his critique of Deleuze and Guattari’s soixante-huitard cybernetic materialism.

Curtis suggests that the cybernetic paradigm merely consists in an unwarranted metaphorical transport from machines to nature, which required a ‘distortion of the scientific method’ – a simplification, a forcing of the data – to bolster it. Unfortunately, he tends then to counter this simplification with a somewhat ineffable notion of the uncomputable ‘complexity of the natural world’, in the same move that human historical agency is reasserted. The transfer of this ‘balance of nature’ paradigm to human society – the ideology whereby networks of independent operators will spontaneously generate stability and transcend politics – is perhaps rightly discredited, but for the wrong reasons.

Curtis sees this cybernetic paradigm as reneging on ‘the enlightenment idea that humans are separate from the rest of nature and master of their own destiny.’ ‘Instead,’ he says, once we lose sight of the ‘complexity of the natural world’ and begin to see ‘animals as robots’, we then begin ‘to see ourselves as components.’

We are no longer ‘human beings in charge of their own destiny , but […] components in systems … from its perspective there was no difference between human beings and machines … they were just nodes in networks, acting and reacting to information’

But this ends up merely fetishizing the complex and in a different, more ineffable way. The real point would not be to reassert history’s autonomy, and to exempt human beings from the application of what we know about the operation of complex systems; but to realise that the Copernican passage to a dehumanized universe – the passage to a thoroughgoing materialism – to an enlightenment that is, as philosopher Ray Brassier suggests, ultimately synonymous with extinction – is subject to local obstacles restrictions and delays. The path through the labyrinth involves many dead ends, many passages that lead back to the centre. Above all it can involve mistaking symptom for trauma – the effects of trauma falling back on the terms of the regional field to produce a sublime, dreamlike mastery of the universal.

So the danger is that the negotiation between the agency and purposiveness of architecture as a regional practice, and the contingency of matter, is held in a compromise-formation in this notion of ‘ecology’ or ‘ecosystem’, which in various ways affords the practitioner a kind of modest colonization of the potencies of matter within a framework of an organization of space which, itself, remains governed by local constraints that belong wholly to the manifest image of man and his dwelling. The ‘eco’ remains tethered to the home and its management.

Copernicanism, as a philosophy of assault, must go all the way with a relentless negativity that refuses not only the ‘big other’ of God whose divine providence allows for the formal purchase of thought upon matter, not only the transcendentalism that would have all matter correlated to thought, but also resists ‘the possibility of hypothesizing the return of a mellifluously orchestrated material universe, a unified natural world, through bottom-up dynamics and processes.’[Adrian Johnston].

We must be careful not to mistake the multifarious symptoms of our encounter with the contingencies of matter with a thoroughgoing and rigorous thinking (out) of our place in the universe. What especially needs to be guarded against, or at least acknowledged, is that this project often becomes artificially welded to other, local projects.

This may be one of the immanent dangers of parametricism, for example. It proposes an unapologetically grand project in which architecture takes its place within a complex, multiversal ecosystem. But there is a slippage between its charting of the info-material possibilities opened up by computation and the perceived exigency of becoming equal to the demands of a ‘post-fordist’ society. The danger here is that one ends up conflating the infinite possibilities of a multiply modulated matter (the concept of nature extended beyond human/terrestrial contingencies) with the servicing of a very local and particular social formation (a concept of human/terrestrial contingencies as nature, where a historical predicament – or its ideological self-representation – becomes naturalised).

In fact these local exigencies themselves must be rigorously traced as localized expressions of that material continuum. The question is how to pick up the thread of that trauma while resisting the temptation to symptomatize, to weld together in a trivial, precipitate manner the first fruits of that enterprise with the spontaneous demands of the regional procedure from which one sets out. In this way one only succeeds in cloning the local horizon and its exigencies into the material universe, in discovering a real that is all-too-fitting, all-too-familiar.

This is the question that Reza Negarestani has raised of procedures to bring into the design process a proper, non-trivial gluing of the local and the global, between regional myopia and the universal.

The lesson from Adam Curtis’s film is that Ecology is always in danger of re-domesticating materiality within a holist narrative that, inevitably, takes its cues from the parochial human life-world – and in this welding of the local to the global, re-correlating the latter, retuning it to local contingencies as if they were transcendental necessities.

At worst, we end up with a fragmented research programme that merely straps together various logics appropriated from various sciences and produces various kinds of Frankenstein that symptomatise trauma and claim transcendental legitimacy.

At best, what is needed are principles or strategies, procedures of coherence, that would allow this research into materiality to avoid such compromise even if at the cost of producing partial, incomplete research outcomes, which nevertheless systematically explore different layers and implications of universal reflexivity.

To connect and modulate with the universal potentialities of information that go beyond the contingent confines of the terrestrial natural frame, or the local frame of a particular site, also involves unlocking the informational structure of the contingent formations that exist within this local frame, and decoding their traumatic relation with the materialities that run through them.

Here what seems invaluable as a complementary to any technique of evolutionary, parametric or generative design, is the approach taken by several of the practitioners here today which address local contingency in an immediate way. The work of Bow Wow which concerns itself with ‘no-good’ architectures that respond in an immediate way, entirely according to local conditions. Or Adrian Lahoud’s study of ‘post-traumatic urbanism’. Just as the equilibrium model of ecology was exploded as it was shown that after catastrophic change, plants and animals recombine in radically different ways, this close study of catastrophic urbanism may uncover the activity of unsuspected material agencies that could not be captured or simulated by any computational model. As we said, No matter what kind of localization it undergoes, the germ of reflexivity is never fully assimilated or bound, and it is in these kindso f extreme situations that unexpected expressions can occur.

I would also recall Eyal Weizman’s account of the Israeli wall as a ‘seismometer’ registering the environment of power around it, which in turn was always implicated in geographical and topographical investments. Or his project with Allesandro Petti, ‘Decolonising architecture’, which seeks environmental contingencies that can discharge the political potency of abandoned or ruined buildings.

Somehow, in warding off the premature welding of the universal Copernican trajectory to regional myopia, and in paying close attention to real contingencies of environments, there might be a way for architecture not only to symptomatically register the impact of the Copernican universe upon its regional field, but to find within itself the traces and threads of that trauma, all the time without losing its specificity as a practice.