Critical Grounds

Month: March, 2012

Are Cities Important To Philosophy? Big Ideas talk by David Cunningham

David Cunningham is speaking, on Tuesday 27th March, 8pm at  The Wheatsheaf, London, on the relationship between philosophy and the city:

“Socrates in Athens; Kant in Konigsberg; Hegel in Jena; Russell in Oxford; Carnap in Vienna; Sartre in Paris. Cities, of course, attract cultural production of all kinds to themselves, and the great cities act as magnets for philosophers just as they do for artists, entrepreneurs and chancers. But is there something more to the relationship between philosophy and the city? Has the course of Western philosophy been influenced by its overwhelmingly urban setting?

Dr David Cunningham is Deputy Director of the Institute for Modern and Contemporary Culture at Westminster University and has published scholarly work on diverse topics in cultural theory including philosophy, architecture, literature and music. He joins us for an unusual look at the history of philosophy or, in a town whose residents perhaps often self-identify as “Londoners” more strongly than as “English”, “British” or “European”, a different perspective on urbanism.”



See you there!


Architectural Deleuzism II: The Possibility of Critique

In his essay ‘Desire and Ethics’, Ian Buchanan has commented on my use of the term ‘Deleuzism’, in ‘Architectural Deleuzism’ (published in Radical Philosophy, 168, 2011), in order to clarify and differentiate what he originally intended by this, in his Deleuzism: A Metacommentary, from my own employment of it. Here I offer a response through which I might clarify why, exactly, I have chosen to misuse his term.

The term ‘architectural Deleuzism’ was not invented, nor has it been used by, the architects that feature in the essay of that title, but is my own reworking of Ian Buchanan’s ‘Deleuzism’, itself coined in reference to Deleuze’s ‘Bergsonism’, to affirm the creative appropriation of a body of thought for purposes unimagined by its original author.[1] Buchanan, in a recent essay, writes that Deleuze:

…spoke of Bergsonism, for example, because his reading of Bergson was intended to create an application of Bergson’s thought, or better an apparatus that could be deployed to give thought to problems and circumstances Bergson himself did not and perhaps could not have considered himself. Bergsonism is in this sense simultaneously faithful to Bergson and a departure from him, without being a negation.[2]

Buchanan is at pains here to clarify what is, and what is not to be understood by ‘Deleuzism’ since he finds my own (mis)appropriation of the term inappropriately negative in its implications:

…I titled my first book on Deleuze Deleuzism – it was intended as an exploration of the problematic of how to ‘follow’ an author who instructs his own readers to go their own way and create their own questions. I make this point because in a recent article Douglas Spencer (2011) has used the term ‘Deleuzism’ as a kind of catch-all pejorative for what he sees as banal uses of Deleuze’s work.’[3]

‘Architectural Deleuzism’ is, I admit, a corruption of the original sense of Buchanan’s term, but one whose pejorative connotations are consciously calculated to challenge the affirmation of the ‘creative application’ of Deleuze, in and of itself, and outside of any specific historical conditions.

Buchanan, characterising Deleuze’s project as one ‘of (liberating) creativity’, wishes to ‘extract from Deleuze’s project an apparatus of social critique built on a utopian impulse.’[4] Accordingly, he defines Deleuzism as an approach that is both ‘critical and creative’.[5] In the case of Deleuzism in architecture, however, it is not possible to sustain an account of this as equally weighted toward the critical and the creative since the affirmation of creativity—particularly in terms of the production of ‘the new’ and an accommodation to the ‘progressive realities’ of capitalism—has been one of the central means through which this architectural tendency has opposed itself to criticality.

Though the disavowal of critique has, through its intersection with the ‘post-critical’, a specifically architectural inflection, it ought also to be understood within the wider historical conditions and broader ideological shifts of contemporary capitalism.  The very possibility of critique has, as a number of thinkers have remarked, been placed in question in the context of a capitalist system able to present itself as something like the final and indisputable form of the social to which there is, apparently, following the collapse of state socialism, and faced only with alternatives defined as archaic, fundamentalist, and undemocratic, no realistic alternative. To question through critique the existing order of things is thus typically characterised as ‘unrealistic’. Kant posited the Aufklarung as the ‘age of criticism, to which everything must be subjected’, including religion, government and ‘reason itself’, implicitly identifying critique with the progressive project of the Enlightenment.[6] Today, any contestation or critique of capital can, through the mobilisation of a well-established and predetermined series of rhetorical tropes, be made to appear as retrogressive, anti-social, criminal or infantile (we might well recall, as exemplary of such mobilisations, the media representations of the various occupations, student protests, and riots that have taken place in the UK since 2010).

Mark Fisher has termed this state of affairs, where the current regime of power is able to present itself as that to which there is no alternative, ‘capitalist realism’. [7] In doing so he has drawn upon earlier remarks by Fredric Jameson and especially Slavoj Žižek, such as the latter’s observation the The Spectre of Ideology that:

…nobody seriously considers possible alternatives to capitalism any longer,…it seems easier to imagine the ‘end of the world’ than a far more modest change in the mode of production, as if liberal capitalism is the ‘real’ that will somehow survive even under conditions of a global ecological catastrophe…[8]

In First as Tragedy, Then as Farce too Žižek addresses the hegemony of a ‘realistic pragmatism’, and its demands that ‘one should heroically resist dreams of perfection and happiness and accept bitter capitalist reality as the best  (or the least bad) of all possible worlds.’[9]

Patrik Schumacher, in his essay ‘Research Agenda: Spatialising the Complexities of Contemporary Business’ exemplifies the presence of capitalist realism in his argument that all forms of outright opposition to capital are now redundant and ineffective: ‘The recent anti-globalisation movement is a protest movement, i.e. defensive in orientation and without a coherent constructive outlook that could fill the ideological vacuum left behind since the disappearance of the project of international socialism.’[10] The only option now, he continues, is to be ‘constructive’, and ‘progressive’ by strategically aligning one’s practice with a corporate agenda.

There is of course a longer standing genealogy of such ‘realism’ and ‘pragmatism’ in architecture. First published in 1972, Learning from Las Vegas, a publication fundamental to the establishment of paradigms of realism and pragmatism in architecture, for instance, opens with the line ‘Learning from the existing landscape is a way of being revolutionary for an architect.’[11]  Manfredo Tafuri’s Architecture and Utopia of 1976, though in disenchanted rather than progressive terms, similarly argues against the possibility of an architecture that could be revolutionary simply by tearing up the ground of existing social relations and building, in the most literal terms, a new world: ‘…it is useless’ he writes, ‘to propose purely architectural alternatives. The search for an alternative within the structures that condition the very character of architectural design is indeed an obvious contradiction of terms.’ [12] As Fredric Jameson was to suggest, addressing the perspectives produced by both Venturi and and Tafuri in his essay ‘Architecture and the Critique of Ideology’, they are each in some way marked by the same response to the real and near totalising conditions of late capitalism:

Is it possible that these two positions are in fact the same and that as different as they may at first seem, both rest on the conviction that nothing new can be done, no fundamental changes can be made, within the massive being of late capitalism?[13]

It is the ‘massive being’ and totalising condition of capitalism, then, that is understood as overdetermining the realism and pragmatism of architecture from the period of the late-twentieth century that emerges as the postmodern, understood both as a movement within architecture, and, as Jameson was to describe it, a more broadly encompassing ‘cultural logic’. It is also within this period, and for the same reasons, that the very possibility of critique becomes questionable. As Guy Debord, remarked of this situation, in an especially bleak passage from his Comments on the Society of the Spectacle, in 1988:

Wherever the spectacle rules, the only organized forces are those that want the spectacle. No one can any longer be the enemy of what exists, nor transgress the omerta that concerns everything. We have finished with that disturbing conception, which was dominant for over two hundred years, according to which society was criticizable or transformable, reformed or revolutionized. And this has not been obtained by the appearance of new arguments, but quite simply because all argument has become useless. From this result we can measure not universal happiness, but the redoubtable strength of the networks of tyranny.[14]

Under these conditions it is critique itself that finds itself criticised, judged, as unreasonable. As Ian MacKenzie observes in The Idea of Pure Critique, whereas in the Enlightenment reason is a tool in the hands of critique against all indifference, against all unquestioning acceptance of the given, reasonableness works to reinscribe the boundaries of and prohibitions against such questioning:

With the benefit of hindsight, we can say that the reign of indifference has entered a new golden age precisely because it finds its strongest support yet in the current milieu of ‘reasonableness’: a milieu that furthers compromise rather than critique.[15]

This judgement of critique emerges too within architectural post-criticality. Jameson describes Tafuri’s response to the ‘massive being of late capitalism’ as one of ‘self-conscious stoicism’, and that of Venturi of being ‘relaxed’ with it.[16] More recent architectural discourse, however, rather than simply resigned to the apparent inefficacy of critique, has been vehemently opposed to its very existence. To cite an example, Zaera-Polo in an essay titled ‘A Scientific Autobiography’ published in the Harvard Design Magazine, describes his experience of the presence of critique and theory once prevalent in architectural education as ‘nagging’, fundamentalist’ and ‘politically correct’, and as an impediment to being ‘productive’ as an architect.[17] Beyond the pragmatic recognition that the powers of architecture might be limited by those of capital that was characteristic of postmodernism, the argument developed within post-criticality and architectural Deleuzism becomes one in which the power of architecture is understood to depend, in some way, on the elimination of critique.

It is in respect of the way that the thought of Deleuze and Guattari has been drafted in to underwrite the legitimacy of this position within contemporary architecture, and of the broader logic of capitalist realism, that I intend architectural Deleuzism as a critical concept and a means of determinate negation. Rather than affirm the creative application of Deleuze in architecture I want, against the grain of Buchanan’s coinage of ‘Deleuzism’, to offer a critique of this architecture. The principle object of this critique is not, to be clear, a judgement of the interpretation of Deleuze and Guattari, according to its accuracy or inaccuracy, produced by the architects addressed in my essay.  Rather my concern is to analyse their part in contributing, through their architecture, to the production of the tractable, precarious and opportunistic subjects of a society of control, and through their discourse, of affirming this as a progressive development.

[1]             Ian Buchanan, Deleuzism: A Metacommentary, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000

[2]             Ian Buchanan, ‘Desire and Ethics’, in Deleuze Studies, Dec 2011, Vol. 5, No. supplement, pp. 7-20

[3]             Ibid., p. 18

[4]             Buchanan, op. cit., (2000), p. 8

[5]             Buchanan, op. cit., (2011), p. 18

[6]            Kant, op. cit. (2004), p.ix

[7]             Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?, Winchester, UK and Washington, US: Zero Books, 2009

[8]            Slavoj Žižek, ‘Introduction: The Spectre of Ideology’, in Mapping Ideology, edited by Slavoj Žižek, London: Verso, 1995, p.1

[9]            Slavoj Žižek, First as Tragedy, Then as Farce, London and New York: Verso, 2009, p.26

[10]            Patrik Schumacher, ‘Research Agenda: Spatialising the Complexities of Contemporary Business’, 2005(b), accessed 8 July, 2009, at <;

[11]             Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour, Learning from Las Vegas, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1972, p. 3

[12]             Manfredo Tafuri, Architecture and Utopia: Design and Capitalist Development, translated by Barbara Luigi La Penta. Cambridge, MA.: MIT Press, 1976, p. 181

[13]             Fredric Jameson, ‘Architecture and the Critique of Ideology,’ in Architecture, Criticism, Ideology, ed. Joan Ockman et al. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1985 p. 87

[14]             Guy Debord, Comments on the Society of the Spectacle, xiii, accessed 22 March, 2012, at <>

[15]            Iain MacKenzie, The Idea of Pure Critique, New York and London: Continuum, 2004, p. 17

[16]             Jameson, op. cit., (1985), p. 87

[17]            Alejandro Zaera-Polo, ‘A Scientific Autobiography: 1982-2004: Madrid, Harvard, OMA, the AA, Yokohama, the globe’ in Harvard Design Magazine, Fall 2004/Winter 2005, pp. 5-15


return to summarise these historical conditions