The Knowledge

by Keller Easterling

Ambition is often associated with single-minded, purified intent. ‘Blind ambition’, for instance is only encumbered by subtlety, nuance or contradiction. On the road to power, ambition overcomes difficulties and obstacles. These need not be sophisticated or complex, however, nor do they necessarily constitute intellectual challenges. Often native confidence is all that is required to become rich or celebrated. Indeed, quite frequently, ambition fights for its victory amidst even the most petty obstacles – obstacles so petty or puny that only the ambitious would not be embarrassed about overleaping them. Sometimes ambition is invoked in describing a more comprehensive project, but this orientation may be equally single-minded if the intent is to produce an encyclopedic survey or galvanizing leadership.

In these terms, the ambition of the architect to be a public intellectual might produce a prolific and prolix character who, however high-minded, would not refuse a little celebrity or a few TV appearances. Someone who hoped others might lean in to listen or throw back their heads with laughter when, at parties, they were especially droll. Someone who realized that the popularity of their program for architecture relied on signature. Someone who, as reinvented or tempered utopian, hoped to offer the Zeitgeist. Someone who might even perpetuate the mental cartoon of architecture culture as a team sport with opponents, scrimmages and victories. Whatever the content of their argument, when only mirroring power, the utopian or the competitor does little to alter the structure of either monism or binary antagonism. The architect as Bouvard, Pecuchet, Slavoj Zizek or guest of Bernard Pivot would require very little restructuring of the profession, very little change in behavior, and certainly very little alteration to thought.

Perhaps there is a more challenging ambition, if ambition refers to both degree of difficulty and height of pleasure.

Might the architect become a public intellectual of a different stripe, one particularly well qualified to offer some alteration to the structure of intellectual assessment itself? One could argue that at the moment the mind best equipped to store and structure knowledge is the mind that understands, sorts and instrumentalizes information between multiple regimes of logic. Might one refashion our common usage of ambition to apply to the cultivation, not of the single-minded, comprehensive or victorious, but rather of the multiplied mind, the mongrel mind, for which a single victory or a single regime of power would be meaningless.

Observers, researchers and theorists, continue to report the failure of blunt instruments (e.g., world system theories or binary oppositions such as national/non-national, citizen/non-citizen, global/local). Whether one refers to Arjun Appadurai ‘scapes’, Aiwa Ong’s ‘situated ethical regimes’, Peter Sloterdijk’s ‘spheres’, or the multiple worlds about which many theorize, these thinkers return with complex models of multiple sovereignties to match the necessity of multiple ethical platforms. They return a need for a correlative mind that sees not the many with the one, but only the many or as Badiou has expressed, the ‘multiple without-one’.

Moreover, as global powers juggle multiple sovereignties and allegiances their behavior is, by necessity, discrepant. Theories of globalization that concoct epic binary wars between these powers are nowhere near sneaky enough. It is much more likely that the multiple realms of influence are kept in play to lubricate the obfuscation so important to the maintenance of power. State and non-state forces decide together how to release, shelter and launder their identity. Crucial then might be a working knowledge of the logics of duplicity.

Some of the most radical changes to the globalizing world are written not in the language of law and diplomacy but rather in the language of architecture and urbanism. After having escaped the bounds of parliamentary politics, this extra-statecraft resides in the unofficial miasma of cultural and market persuasion. Indeed, the notion that there is a proper, forthright realm of political negotiation usually acts as the perfect camouflage for a rich medium of subterfuge, hoax and hyperbole that finally rules the world. While architecture and urbanism are clearly serving and delineating some of these realms of extra-statecraft, the profession often claims to be excluded from political decision-making or claims to be ‘not at the table’ when policy is determined. Yet the good news is that the most influential policies are controlled by discrepant characters like butlers, ‘go-betweens’, shills and confidence men. And architects, as the classic facilitators of power, have long been seated at that particular table.

The architect as public intellectual happily swims in these waters working with the misalignments of logic that constitute duplicity. These are the fictions, persuasions and politics that the profession already has running through their fingers. This is the raw material of the work – the stray details that may lack political pedigree or the outlying tactics that have not been subjected to taxonomy and moral analysis by the left or the right. Yet they may finally be the real cause of a cessation of violence or a change in economic fortune. The profession would do well to train its political imagination to see these triggers. As correlative thinkers architects are already skilled at concocting the strange cocktails of logic that are crucial to refresh the symbolic capital of contemporary markets.

It is a rehearsal in the logics of duplicity, rather than a contemplation of single-minded righteousness, that prepares architecture to field our most difficult cultural aporia. Indeed, as they use righteousness to disguise their own duplicity, the most lethal formations in the world exhibit duplicity par excellence. The presidency, the corporate consortium, the nation or the global cartel may pose as pure, inviolate and forthright while deploying sophisticated covert forces and complex technologies to reset or eliminate any errant information that complicates their comforting certainty. The US government makes its own weather and declares its own legal exceptions. The para-state corporation, in mutual camouflage with state forces, declares its own complex, mongrel exceptions. Many market regimes both extend and tighten their boundaries. All cultivate the violence of remaining intact. They attempt to strengthen their regime by admitting no contradiction or extrinsic information. They maintain a cunning stupidity, a high-tech stupidity, or a special stupidity. In an information paradox of sorts they require enormous intelligence to avoid intelligence – an enormous amount of information to remain information-free. The architect as public intellectual would in this case have ‘the knowledge’ about space, building, urbanism and its contingencies, just as one expects a London cabdriver to have ‘the knowledge’ about that city’s impossibly complex maze of streets.

The architect as public intellectual is in a good position to return information to regimes that have successfully banished it. This character might be the supplier of all those cultural thorns that deny the possibility of purity and innocence. The world does not hold still while architects push through their prescriptions and urgent situations do not become less severe as they wait for their day on the legislative floor. Since the total, the permanent and prescriptive, evaporate in duplicitous environments, a leap into association with utopia might not risk confusion, but may rather be the ideal means to communicate a countering intent. The insertion of information and ingenious invention, if it is to outwit the agility of special stupidity, is of necessity, temporary and partial, but vigilant and renewed.

Inspiring forms of stupidity tutor spatial entrepreneurialism, impure ethical struggles and a new species of spatio-political activism operating neither from within or without but in parallel. Moreover, given that so much extra-statecraft juggles fiction to disguise abusive situations, the architect, as public intellectual, is thrilled that two can play at this game.