A Beside: Learning to be Opaque
Since the dispelling of all sorts of fogs is the cornerstone of the modernist enterprise and its prime patrimony from the enlightment, it is no wonder that the rise of a certain ‘dangerous’ opacity, inextricably connected with communication (what isn’t now?) and its’ technology, is causing uneasiness (or elation, depending). This is so particularly among those who have fetishized transparency in its various modes, especially as its role, by no means transparent, in the great modern institutional panopticons.
The concept of public space serves to provoke anxiety now, not least of all among architects, the self-professed ‘custodians’ of that arena. Inasmuch as that space is the site of the conflict/collision/meeting of the particular and the general, it may always have caused a certain uneasiness for those who passed though it (even though now we only seem to pass through it, the modernist emphasis seems to be on living in that space.) we have only to think of Walter Benjamin’s meditations on glass/transparency when he wrote in 1929, “Everything to come stands under the banner of transparency.” … And subsequent modernism’s infatuation, both materially and ideologically, with the possibilities of transparency, and its utopian placement, as a form of psychic management of the public arena. We have only also to think of Philip Johnson’s early glass house, any downtown AND suburban office park and before that, Bruno Taut and the Glass Pavilion in London at a turn of the century expo.
It has turned out however that transparency may not be the tool of leverage it was originally conceived to be. In thinking that glass would allow the public arena to be expanded inward to the interior, the architects of modernity were perhaps hoping for the instauration of Adolfe Behne’s sentiments that “When all intimacy has ceased, man begins to breathe.” Of course, it didn’t turn out to be that simple. Transparency now seems to be a duplicitous quality, something that postmodernism in its many variants has become aware of, even to the point of instigating various forms of opacity, mirroring (doubling), and renewal of ideas of particularity and singularity at the expense of generality, albeit in the form of the frame surrounding the glass (which, as we know, can readily transform, even shatter, the contents of the frame if sufficient torque is applied. Early theorists were quite aware of this and attempted to minimize the framework as much as possible. In a true public space there would be no framework, an apparent impossibility).
Early on, it became apparent that, as Pierre Missac puts it (and a certain almost almost metaphysical taint seems to bleed through):, “Quite rapidly, the brillant light came to seem unbearable, …, as though needing to feel the space around them enclosed by walls…” Subsequently tinted glass, special louvers, etc were devised. Much of what the ‘philosphers of suspicion’, Heidegger, Nietzsche, Freud and subsequent continental theory, have had to contribute to the modernism/postmodernism debate has been a re-examination of the frame–and quite often at the expense of transparency. Transparency now has a pharmakonological aspect, which takes two forms, neither apparently at odds with each other: its ability to shatter into deadly shards and its ability to affect transmissibility–terrorism and communication (the most advanced, most dense form of data transmission now uses glass cable; one way glass has long been used for surveillance purposes. And just as an aside we should remember that glass has always played a part in scrying, divination, and prophecy [and transparency is always on the way to becoming a screen or mirror or, ultimately, for glass, a slab of granite; something which it shares, no doubt, with the body) . As it turns out, prophecy — and even enthusiam as public religious ‘discourse’– is never very far from any discourse on public space.] Both of these aspects now account for current anxieties regarding public spaces.
Utopian transparency has given way to dystopic C3: military terminology for Control, Command, Communication. The opening up of interiorities via transparency has now come to be seen as a pillaging of interiorities, both historical (and certain forms of postmodernism hold responsibility here) and psychical in the form of evacuation ( — or ‘hollowing out’ as Adorno put it –) of subjectivities and subsequent re-filling in the form of commodity fetishism, criss-crossed and maintained by an information infra-structure. This data highway now promises to do for the interior landscape (and perhaps also exteriorities–the boundaries seem to becoming increasingly porous) what the physical highway has done to the physical environment: erosion of distance, a speeding up and densification of temporal ordering, alteration of sense ratios, the eradication of local communities, fragmentation, heterogeneity. In contrary motion are various forms of institutional consolidations, mergers, and alliances on a global scale; formation of non-contiguous communities (‘inoperative’ in Jean-Luc Nancy’s phrase) as well as uprisings of more archaic communities based on race, ethnicity, religion, and recreation; a curious static-ness of human nature’ wherein mythological structures seem to be constantly erupting, especially through technical media and cinematic special effects
While high theory seems to be increasingly shorn of gravity, floating free of earthly constraints, the popular imagination becomes increasingly mythologized, dwelling on draconian fantasies, neo-gothic architecture, subterranean, even uterine, formations taking precedence over Corbusian garden cities, the tracing of enatic lines over (and sometimes against) agnatic geneologies–the fearful Return of the Mothers, Goethe’s Faust might exclaim.. The atrium has now come to encompass all of space, an invagination wherein even the space between buildings comes to seem merely the interior of another, vaster space, albeit a space enclosed in darkness and water (one has to only think of the city scapes in many popular recent movies: Bladerunner, the Batman series, the recent Judge Dredd; in fact, in almost every movie wherein the environment is equal to or takes precedence over character, certain mythological dicotomous restraints seem to apply.)
The public space, then, as it is activated through terrorism, communication, commodity fetishism, and prophecy seems to be taking on some of the tensions which Julia Kristeva ascribes to psychoanalysis in its attempt to counterbalance authority and transgression as in the following quote: “The ensuing equilibrium preserves the vitality of this discourse, a vitality that grows out of the immanence of death (the discourse of knowledge) and resurrection (the discourse of desire). As a result, psychoanalysis upsets the social contract, which is founded, according to Freud, on an act of murder. Analysts do not shy away from being dead fathers of knowledge, but the are also subjects of affect, desire, and joissance. Consequently, they are distanced from schools and institutions and concentrate instead on restructuring other people’s psyche..” (New Maladies of the Soul, 35).
Architecture is, however, an even more peculiar form of pyramidology, literally exhausting interiors, eviscerating natural structures, trees to lumber, volcanic interiors to cement, melting beaches to glassine surfaces, a peculiar form of resurrection indeed where the dead are the first priority. Little is left for the public space but the ghostly dance of commodities, objects, deaths brought back to life under the sign of Saturn: leaden, melancholic, the world itself become a thing, “the planet of detours, delays” making one “apathetic, indecisive, slow” (as Susan Sontag once described a certain modern temperament).
No wonder then that architecture becomes the chosen site for the terrorist’s attempts to communicate, interrupting by re-inscribing a discourse of particularlized destructive desire onto bunkered generalized knowledge (the industrial state, as the Unabomber has it; the scientific method itself!), attempting an instauration of his own particularized brand of prophecy, ‘signature effect’ (of neccessity irrational, Benjamin’s destructive character’ smeared across the landscape) requiring as his glass ball, shards, fragments, as his only recourse, working perhaps ‘backwards’ from desire (the hope for SOME sort of resurrection–personal, social–) rather than ‘forward’ from knowledge, the inevitable chiasmatic crossing forming the new public space (always doubled now, uncanny, paranoiac, mobiated).
And as sorcerers and those who live in the blues have always known, crossroads are dangerous places.