Tolerating Architectural Parallax

Slavoj Žižek’s 2011 book Living in the End Times contains a 35 page interlude entitled “The Architectural Parallax.”Slavoj Žižek, Living in the End Times. (London: Verso, 2011.) Pages 244-278.Though Žižek uses the opening paragraph to belittle his own knowledge of architecture —which he describes in apparent sincerity as merely Fountainhead-level—he is clearly not just blowing smoke when discussing the subject. His chapter contains numerous examples of specific architects and buildings well beyond what most contemporary philosophers could manage. The opening and conclusion of “The Architectural Parallax” address the same topic, which unsurprisingly is also Žižek’s dominant theme. As is well known, one of his major books is on the topic of parallax, and it reappears comfortably here.Slavoj Žižek, The Parallax View. (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007.)Parallax in astronomy means a case in which the apparent position of, say, the moon in comparison with the surrounding stars, seems to shift when viewed at the same time from different points on the earth, and in principle even from the same person’s left and right eye. But rather than a “Kantian” interpretation, in which some real moon-in-itself is shifted through being perceived from different subjective standpoints, Žižek offers a “Hegelian” version of parallax in which “subject and object are inherently ‘mediated,’ so that an ‘epistemological’ shift in the subject’s point of view always reflects an ‘ontological’ shift in the object itself.” (244) In architectural terms, “things get interesting when we notice that the gap is inscribed into the ‘real’ building itself.” (244) Above all, he is fascinated by the creative opportunity the gap provides for a new third term somewhere in between the two terms of the gap itself. As he puts it, architecture “concerns not merely or primarily the actual building, but the virtual space of new possibilities opened up by the actual building.” (245) At the outset Žižek offers no definition of “virtual,” which famously means different things for different contemporary thinkers, but there are enough indications in the text to piece together some idea of what he means by it.

Before speaking further about this virtual space, Žižek has more to tell us about the initial architectural parallax itself. First, he identifies it with the temporal dimension of any building: “our changing temporal experience when we approach and enter a building. It is a little bit like a cubist painting, presenting the same object from different perspectives, condensing into the same spatial surface a temporal extension,” which he also identifies with Lévi-Strauss’s definition of myth. (245) If I am reading him correctly, he is suggesting that space and time themselves make up a sort of primal parallax, at least for architecture. Second, Žižek throws us a bit of a curveball. If initially he seemed to be taking a Hegelian rather than a Kantian line on parallax, he suddenly abandons Hegel in favor of something that smells more like Lacan or Schelling, two of his other intellectual heroes:

when confronted with an antinomic stance in the precise Kantian sense of the term, we should renounce all attempts to reduce one to the other (or, a fortiori, to enact a kind of “dialectical synthesis of opposites”). The task is, on the contrary, to conceive of all possible positions as responses to a certain underlying deadlock or antagonism, as so many attempts to resolve this deadlock. (245)

Leaving aside the question of his philosophical sources for this notion, Žižek’s examples of this “deadlock” in architecture are clearly given: he finds them above all in what he calls “postmodernism.” He cites in particular Frank Gehry and Daniel Libeskind, who “attempt to combine two incompatible structuring principles within the same building.” (245) More specifically: “in the case of Libeskind, horizontal/vertical and oblique cubes,” and “in the case of Gehry, traditional house with modern —concrete, corrugated, iron, glass, supplements), as if two principles were locked in a struggle for hegemony.” (245) It is interesting to note that this passage seems to suggest that each architect might be haunted by a specific personal parallax, rather than architecture as a whole struggling repeatedly with one and the same deadlock, such as the traditional form/function dualism. It also worth noting that Žižek’s reading of Gehry relies directly on that of Frederic Jameson. (245) I wonder whether this influence is a healthy one: not because I have anything in particular against Jameson’s view of Gehry or of architecture, but because Jameson’s tendency to read everything in “ideological” terms seems to obstruct Žižek from further reflection on architectural aesthetics. But we can leave this matter aside for the moment, and conclude our account of parallax and the virtual.

Sixteen pages later, Žižek extends his earlier remark that Libeskind draws on a tension between the horizontal/vertical axis on the one hand and oblique cubes on the other. (245) He now reinterprets this technique in a more general form: “Some of Libeskind’s projects… reflect the gap between the protective skin and the inner structure in the ‘skin’ itself… A weird tension and imbalance, a conflict of principles, are thus directly inscribed into the form, as if the actual building lacked a single anchoring point and perspective.” (261) Žižek sees this tension between skin and structure as typical of contemporary performing arts venues, as well as of “some of Koolhaas’s buildings, like the… project for the Bibliothèque National de France.” (261) Along with this special interest in the skin/structure parallax, Žižek has a phenomenological fascination for the tension between outside and inside: “the reality we see through a window is always minimally spectral, not as fully real as the space we are in… This is also why, when we enter the closed space of a house, we are often surprised: the inside volume seems larger than the outside frame, as if the house were larger from the inside than from the outside.” (258) He adopts the existing French term poche (“pocket”) to describe the virtual/interstitial spaces sometimes found between the inside and outside of buildings: “this ‘open space’ inside [in the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia], this outside which is inside, open to access, is full of cafés, free puppet shows, and so on.” (275) He even skillfully links these notions to the anti-adaptationist biology of Stephen Jay Gould, with his famous meditation on architectural “spandrels,” or unintended spaces left over as a consequence of another architectural decision. Žižek now ventures the dramatic hope that such spandrels —including those that lie between skin and structure, offering cafés and free puppet shows— are a “potential utopian space.” (276) As a strikingly concrete example, he notes that “the spaces between the pillars of a bridge can thus be used by homeless persons for sleeping, even though such spaces were not designed for providing such shelter.” (278) The bridge in downtown Austin, Texas also comes to mind: designed purely as a thing of utility, it became a sort of utopia for the millions of bats who love to hang from its girders, and who  largely cleanse downtown Austin of pesky insects.

Initially, it looked as if Žižek’s thoughts on the third or virtual space might converge with those of object-oriented ontology (OOO). His frequently Hegelian anti-realism might have been expected to sublate the two terms of any given parallax into a unified term, yet Žižek abandons that strategy when he affirms an enduring “deadlock” between two horns of a dilemma. Now, OOO offers just such a deadlock: that between the tinier components of any object and the various relations or outward effects with which it becomes involved. It also treats these two extremes as correlative of the two forms of knowledge one can have about any object: What is it made of? What can it do?Graham Harman, “Undermining, Overmining, and Duomining: A Critique,” in ADD Metaphysics, Jenna Sutela (Ed.). (Aalto, Finland: Aalto University Design Research Laboratory, 2013.) Pages 40-51.OOO’s object can also be thought of as an interstitial space. But for obvious reasons, Žižek cannot possibly accept OOO’s de-mined architectural object. Whereas this object has a reality that can be subtracted from any relation in which it becomes involved, Žižek would see this as belonging to a “Kantian” standpoint. More sophisticated, in Žižek’s eyes, is an approach that nullifies any object-in-itself outside its relations, so that the object does not really exist outside the deadlocked parallax views in which the object appears. We are now close to the cornerstone of Žižek’s philosophy, which opposes every realism with a “materialism” that draws on the usual anti-realist arguments of Hegel, Lacan, and quantum theory in its successful Copenhagen Interpretation which holds that our inability to measure both the position and momentum of a particle simultaneously is not just an “uncertainty” (as Heisenberg first had it) but an actual indeterminacy (in Bohr’s formulation). That is to say, it is not just that the particle has both position and momentum but without our being able to measure both; instead, it does not really have position or momentum until an act of measurement occurs. OOO reads this situation differently, though in a short article like this one we cannot address either quantum theory or the realism/anti-realism dispute more generally. I simply wish to discuss an architectural consequence of Žižek’s view.

What needs to be seen is how closely Žižek identifies the virtual third space he sees in architecture with the space of politics. It is a space of political utopia, engraved into the left-over spandrels of the architect’s original vision: a space where the homeless find shelters under bridges and children view (free) puppet shows in excess spaces insufficiently articulated in the building’s original plans. Now, OOO views politics in opposite terms: as a space of uncertainty made visible by the failures of both any attempt to articulate a political truth and any attempt to eliminate political truth in favor of victorious power-plays.Graham Harman, Bruno Latour: Reassembling the Political. (London: Pluto 2014.)For Žižek, this would be an unacceptably “Kantian” vision of politics as concerned with elusive issues-in-themselves. Good Hegelian and Lacanian that he is, every political deadlock (like any other kind of deadlock) does not lie hidden beneath the surface of action, but is reflexively absorbed into that surface as an “immanent” deadlock derived from the failure of the two extreme terms of any parallax.

Just enough time remains to discuss the consequences of this view. In the first place, by denying any inherent depth to the architectural object, Žižek is forced into the usual anti-formalist predicament of overstating the importance of the relational networks in which a building is stationed. The network that interests him most is, of course, the political one. Buildings are always “ideological,” and here Jameson becomes the key authority in Žižek’s argument. Let’s assume for the sake of argument that every edifice is ideological in some way. It would still not follow from this that the edifice is exhausted by its current ideological configuration. But ideologies change, architects die, societies die: and something is still left over of buildings that is not fully intelligible in terms of Marxist Ideologiekritik. Žižek admiringly quotes Jameson’s words in The Political Unconscious that “the aesthetic act is also ideological,” though the only reason to prefer this formulation over its opposite (in which ideology would also be aesthetic) is due to the ultimately indefensible assumption that socio-political critique is first philosophy. To believe this requires the previous ontological conclusion/decision that there is nothing in objects that is not fully deployed in their encounter with a human subject who is “deadlocked” by an unresolved parallax in them. Both terms of the parallax can then be embraced as forms of ideology, and ideology and the critique thereof are now in a position of dominance over the object, reducing its opacity and autonomy to things that are merely said about it by a subject.

But ironically, Žižek’s real misstep occurs when he turns to one of his greatest areas of intellectual strength: Lacanian psychoanalysis. “Vaguely” identifying the famous Lacanian triad of Real, Symbolic, and Imaginary with “realism, modernism, and postmodernism” in architecture, Žižek offers what looks on the surface like an interesting analogy. The problem comes when he tries to tell us what realism in architecture might mean. Despite the rather uncommonsensical sense of “the Real” in Lacan, what Žižek regards as the architectural real turns out to be shockingly and concretely un-Lacanian: “First, there is the reality of the physical laws one has to obey if a building is to stand up, of the concrete functions the building has to fulfill, of the needs it has to satisfy (people should be able to live or work in it; it should not cost too much)— all the panoply of pragmatic-utilitarian considerations.” (246) It is quite astonishing that, ultimately, Žižek’s concept of the architectural real has nothing to do with any sort of Lacanian deadlock of objet a or das Ding, but entirely exhausts the reality of the architectural object in terms of science and engineering on one side and “all the panoply of pragmatic-utilitarian considerations” on the other. In a word, this is a textbook case of what OOO calls “duomining.” Is this just a buzzword designed to falsely refute opposing theories by means of a “name-calling” method? Hardly. In fact, the OOO case against duomining boils down to two arguments that our opponents rarely if ever face head-on. In the first place, to talk about an object as the result of scientific and engineering principles is to undermine it, meaning that nothing can be said about emergent features of the object that cannot be reduced to the sound methods followed by the engineers and contractors working on a building. The form of the building is something more than the purely physical arrangements and particles that made it possible. And in the second place, it is senseless to think a building can even be half-exhausted by pointing to its outward pragmatic effects. For this is merely the overmining that cannot explain changes in the future use of the program of a building or any other object. The full “panoply of pragmatic-utilitarian considerations” does not explain the form of the building any more than do the technical boasts of the technical people drafted to make sure the building will not collapse. This is the inherent limit of the parallax approach to architecture: the fact that its speaks always about what is below the building (engineering decisions) or above it (pragmatic-utilitarian consideration, ideologies) while completely missing the building in the middle that is autonomous from these two adjoining layers precisely by resisting them. And yet this parallax theory should and must be tolerated, since fruitful observations still come from it.