No 34.

Wordplay

by Emmanuel Olunkwa

In Denis Hollier’s Against Architecture: The Writings of Georges Bataille, Hollier quotes Bataille: “Architecture is the expression of every society’s very being.” 1 Which is to say: What monuments make up your society? Which schools define your town? What type of clothing dresses your body, and declares who you are and who you want to be? What is architecture and what does it mean for someone, like Bataille, to detest it? These thoughts were on my mind after November published our first volume on L’informe.

In Against Architecture, Hollier carefully illuminates the unstable theoretical, sexual, and personal inner workings of Bataille. He reveals an invisible architecture so familiar and so ingrained both underfoot and on our tongues. In one of the chapters, “The Architectural Metaphor,” he writes:

Meaning exists only at risk. It is never fixed, never arrested. There are no guarantees. Meaning uninsured. Not covered. Science and philosophy (models of discourse on) would like to fix and accumulate meaning in a closed language where clearly defined terms are enumerated hierarchically according to finite, calculable connections with no lateral linkage. They invest meaning in the lexicon, which as a result is allotted to control by the concept. In contrast, the meaning put in play by Bataille’s writing does not hoard but rather expends itself. There is no meaning except through sacrifice—which is meaningless. This is where his writings transgress any formalism: by refusing to subject wordplay to meaning, and, on the contrary setting it off again by deranging syntax.
A word’s meaning always refers back to some other word: the word “table” to the word “furniture,” the word “mandolin” to “guitar,” and so forth. This movement, which no dictionary, no language can claim to escape, is however limited as far as possible by scientific languages, which are considered “well constructed” precisely to the extent that they limit circulation to the minimal number of elements—whose play they are able to circumscribe by this economy, stabilizing the cross references. 2

When I think about architecture, much like Hollier, the word brings other referents to mind—such as buildings, bodies, garments, beliefs, and varying systems (governmental) of control that define, confine, and invent people. Architecture is Bataille’s stand-in for language as it reinscribes its power with each stabilizing cross reference, cross beam, and cross section. Architecture is allotted control by the concept and becomes power through construction. When thinking about power in the abstract, I naturally found myself reaching for Jean Baudrillard’s The Agony of Power. To be honest, I’ve been trying to formulate a more concise convening for these different typologies of criticism and form, for language and architecture to come together. Towards the end of graduate school, I met with a professor to talk about potentially enrolling in a PhD program and the mechanics of what that would entail. They were gracious enough and explained the role of the historian and the practice and maintenance required to keep the profession alive and students engaged. We spoke in-depth about the necessity of innovation, how that doesn’t always take place within academia, and how it isn’t a bad thing.

Engaging Hollier’s text today stirs up frustration. It is hard to feel free of fixity, to not feel like science and philosophy have won and we live in their world of closed language where everything is burdened by meaning which hoards, rather than expends. Because of capitalism, we (as a body of people) have been conditioned to assign meaning to just about everything and anyone. We’ve racialized, classified, and have embraced a legislature that governs in fascistic terms by selling our freedom back to us through structural inequality. A friend often remarks that capitalism is the most effective when you don’t recognize it or cannot name what it is doing or has done. Bataille’s refusal to make wordplay into meaning shakes this foundation. For example, Hollier aptly speaks about Bataille’s wordplay with penser (to think) and dépenser (to spend). (For more on this, see Nancy Goldring’s interview with Michael Taussig in Volume 1.)

When architecture is used as a metaphor, the power and meaning of architecture are both retrodden and solidified as the most fundamental base, but the metaphor also, unintentionally, gives us a loophole. By taking architecture out of the street and into the realm of language, its power and meaning can be subverted by using language against itself. By refusing to make wordplay into meaning, we can arrive at a place and in a world where things are able to shift and morph as they please, where nothing and no one is permanently fixed. This architectural metaphor is a declaration to “derange syntax” to expose how architecture isn’t just a problem of buildings and their presupposed promise, but it’s a language problem that we have yet to confront. 

We try to reckon with the pliancy of language as both a platform and container for making remarks and queries that can be destabilized. In The Agony of Power, Baudrillard claims that “history’s over,” which provides a necessary thinking structure to engage in the politics of history, the stories we're told (myths), and how we're encouraged to vote, paired with the general yet vague diplomacy speak where we use language to express the frustration with the structural problems that we are constantly forced to encounter. Without committing to implementing a long-term strategy to better the social fabric and material conditions of our cities, towns, and bodies—we are forever circling the drain. History isn't a subject that school children are meant to critique but instead it serves as a means of conditioning a governed political consciousness that is non-negotiable. We come to know history as something to explicitly memorize and interpret but rarely do we confront the violence of its simplicity, linearity, and psychology. Baudrillard stating that "history's over" envokes the reality that at one point history did in fact begin, and helps raise questions of how we're participating in it now as a body of people who are governed and socialized to perform for the financial and psychological gains of the elite. Though it's essential that we challenge certain elements of mythologizing and storytelling, it's hard to believe the role of the architect is over or will be anytime soon — it's about rethinking the structure that has so thoroughly and sanitarily produced a world and circumstances that we can't confront unless we merge into the institution.

Volume 2 isn’t a declaration to take down the old guard or critique new publications who are in the process of making new declarations that dress our current social psyche and conversations with friends. This is an exercise is to show that old institutions are what make the new ones, they’re essential points of reference and provide constraints to produce something with a different vantage point and a fresh message. The task at hand is to embrace the necessity of innovation, create pockets of meaning in language, and recognize the existing infrastructures that inform and shape our environment. We can't create meaning without reworking the standards that we have come to adopt as Murphy's Law, where everything is governed by what might happen though who's to know for sure? It's time to do away with letting anxieties seed the choices we're able to make and the liberties we cite as being constitutional rights. Without investigating the choices that people who have preceded us have made; we can’t have the new (emerging) without the old (standard).

Footnotes

1

From the Critical Dictionary of Documents. Georges Bataille, “Architecture,” Documents 7 (May 1929).

2

Hollier, Denis. Against Architecture: The Writings of Georges Bataille. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1992: 26.

Next from this Volume

35.

Our Most Haunted Place

by Dawn Chan

"Simulation faced the same unceremonious end as its referent."