#4: The Gehry of Sixty-First

Jameson on Architecture

Chapter 4: Spatial Equivalents in the World System


So as we've repeatedly noted, the basic character of postmodernism is the centrality of the image, and a problem that this centrality raises is how exactly we're supposed describe the relationship between all of these diffuse, contextless images. Jameson touches on this problem in the previous chapter, when trying to make sense of the sequence of images in that video AlienNATION, where no one image is really more substantial or informative than any other; they're just these disjointed elements that iteratively constitute what he wants to call "flow."

But this same problem extends to postmodern architecture, where "the elements and components of the work [are] held in solution by a kind of antigravity of the postmodern" (101). So it's a familiar problem for this book but with a kind of novel twist toward the basic physical realities of "built space." Postmodern architecture can be characterized by these messy assemblages of elements pulled from the past, which sort of inherently preclude any kind of singular organizational structure, but it is still like, a building, and is therefore at least sort of "governed" by basic rules of physics, and so describing its elements as "floating around" is sort of unhelpful and counterintuitive.

This is a formal problem that a term like "intertextuality" might describe but not really solve, mostly because it is pretty vague, implying a relationship between an element of the "text" (in this case, the building) and something outside of it but not really much beyond that. So instead, Jameson proposes to borrow the term "wrapping" from architecture to describe the relationship between elements, noting that "unlike intertextuality, [the term] retains the essential prerequisite of priority or even hierarchy— the functional subordination of one element to another (sometimes even called 'causality')— but makes that now reversible. What is wrapped can also be used as a wrapper; the wrapper can also be wrapped in its turn" (101-02).

This understanding of "wrapping" is useful more generally to make sense of how "texts" (i.e., basically everything) interact with each other in the logic of postmodernism. In literary criticism, for example, the more traditional distinction between "primary texts" (i.e., literature) and "secondary texts" (i.e., criticism or commentary or whatever), has given way to a kind of free interplay between those two things. Nowhere is this more obvious than in Jameson's own work, where the traditionally "secondary" work of interpretation becomes more "primary" than the works being interpreted. It's worth noting, for instance, that in the previous chapter only one of the video art works we talked about was real; the other one about the static floating head was just a hypothetical thing that Jameson made up for the purposes of his broader claims about "videoart" more generically.

So the idea is that things are just shifting around but also physically or materially supporting each other in some basic sense: what were once "works" become "texts," alternatingly wrapping and being wrapped by other "texts" to form the basic units of postmodern cultural production. As Jameson describes, the lasting result of this ongoing process of wrapping and rewrapping is a "loosening of primary unity, dissolving a work into a text, releasing the elements and setting them free for semiautonomous existence as information bits in the message-saturated space of late-capitalist media culture" (103).

Minimal Units of Built Space

Sort of along these same lines, he proposes to use “The Sentence” as a kind of model for identifying something like the "minimal units" of a building. This is a move that is borrowed from film studies, and it's just really great to read Jameson ponderously working his way through this idea: "the words of built space, or at least its substantives, would seem to be rooms...related and articulated by the various spatial verbs and adverbs—corridors, doorways, and staircases, for example— modified in turn by adjectives in the form of paint and furnishings, decoration, and ornament" (105).

What he's really setting up here is something that won't really pay off until the very end of this chapter, but for now we can just take a minute to enjoy the image of Jameson leaning back in his chair, rubbing his chin, and thinking to himself, "Rooms are surely the words of built space." Thank you so much man.

Frank Gehry House

Anyway. The bulk of this chapter is an extended examination of the Frank Gehry House.

Jameson cites an interview in which Gehry talks about how photographers who come to his house always want to rearrange the furniture, and he tries to stop them. True to form, Jameson wants to read this as a more general symptom of the postmodern condition, noting that "such discussions imply a displacement of architectural space such that the positioning of its contents— objects and human bodies alike— becomes problematical" (117). The move here is to argue that the displacement of furniture and people for the sake of staging a photograph is this sort of microcosmic demonstration of the displacement of the "subject" more generally as a unique condition of the postmodern.

This isn't a super compelling argument, in my view. It's another one of those moments where the vast argumentative scaffolding that Jameson is trying to lay out here sort over overcrowds the particularities of the thing he's talking about.

And it feels especially notable here because Jameson had literally just cited a passage from Gavin Macrae-Gibson that much more cleanly identifies more or less this same sense of displacement in Gehry's usage of weird angles and distorted perspective. For reasons that will become clear later, Jameson is trying to distance himself from Macrae-Gibson even though he sort of agrees with him, but it's worth noting for now that in trying to reach the same conclusion through a different angle, Jameson's argument ends up feeling much less convincing.

Anyway here's Macrae-Gibson:"For Gehry the world vanishes to a multitude of points, and he does not presuppose that any are related to the standing human being. The human eye is still of critical importance in Gehry's world, but the sense of center no longer has its traditional symbolic value" (116).

To me, this is much more satisfying analysis. Again, later in the chapter Jameson is going to tell me why I'm wrong for feeling this way. But for now I'm just going to enjoy it.

In any case, the broader point that Jameson wants to make is that, having shed the organizational logic of a central subject position, we're left with a kind of spacial messiness that is uniquely postmodern:

If the great negative emotions of the modernist movement were anxiety, terror, the being-unto-death, and Kurtz's "horror," what characterizes the newer "intensities " of the postmodern, which have also been characterized in terms of the "bad trip" and of schizophrenic submersion, can just as well be formulated in terms of the messiness of a dispersed existence, existential messiness, and the perpetual temporal distraction of post-sixties life (117).

The vocation of art

So what is the problem that Jameson has with Macrae-Gibson, whose reading of the Gehry House, as alluded to above, is built around this constant perspectival challenge. He offers a reading of the Gehry House in which its weird angularity resists the formation of a singular "intellectual picture." You look at the building and there are all these different angles, all these different suggested vanishing points, the thing is very difficult to orient, spatially. And, as suggested above, this "displaces the subject," makes us feel "decentred," etc.

But here's the thing: This mode of analysis falls back onto a very modernist conception of the function of art, which as Jameson describes, relies on "the vocation of art to restimulate perception, to reconquer a freshness of experience back from the habituated and reified numbness of everyday life in the fallen world" (121). And this is a conception of "art" that we don't actually want to help ourselves to when dealing with the postmodern, in which we can no longer allow for the clean and autonomous function of the cultural sphere as something outside of late capitalism.

It's another frustrating but unavoidable feature of Jameson's broader point here: If postmodernism really is the cultural logic of late capitalism, then works of "postmodern" cultural production are themselves always already part of late capitalism. Once you recognize that, you can't really pretend otherwise.

Nor should you want to. Jameson puts this crudely and succinctly: "It is not clear, to put it crudely and succinctly, why, in an environment of sheer advertising simulacra and images, we should even want to sharpen and renew our perception of those things" (122). So the question then really is: What is the function of art and culture in late capitalism?

Architectural Photography

But Jameson isn't quite done with Macrae-Gibson. He wants to keep toying around with this idea of the house's resistance to the formation of an "intellectual picture," which we might read as synonymous with "memory." Roughly, we could say Macrae-Gibson's position is something like: we can directly perceive the house when we're in it or around it, but all of its tricky angles and spaces make it difficult to fit into our memory and think about later. Which, sure.

But check this out: We also know that so-called "direct perception" isn't really as direct as we generally pretend it is. The body has this whole sensory apparatus that interprets "direct" experience of the world into something we can actually handle. And this is a fundamentally material process: just as in our previous chapter we talked about how film, with its elaborate and unavoidable production infrastructure, rendered visible the more general materiality of culture itself, so too does the technology of photography (with its apparatus of lenses and plates and so on) render visible the inherent materiality of vision.

But so in a sense what Jameson is saying is that Macrae-Gibson's reading is kind of correct, only not quite in the sense that Macrae-Gibson intended. The problem posed by the angularity of the Gehry House is not an "architectural problem" but actually a photographic one. As Jameson describes, the house "[blocks] the choice of photographic point of view, evading the image imperalism of photography, securing a situation in which no photograph of this house will ever be quite right, for it is the photograph alone which offers the possibilities of an 'intellectual picture' in this sense" (125).


Okay fine. So Macrae-Gibson thinks he's talking about architecture when he's actually talking about photography, and "perception" isn't really a properly architectural problem.

So then what is the "architectural problem" that the Gehry house is looking to solve? More broadly, what kinds of problems are properly "architectural"?

For Jameson, it all goes back to that classic three-dimensional extent we know and love as "space." As he describes, "if Gehry's house is a meditation on a problem, that problem must initially be a spacial one, or at least be susceptible to formulation and incarnation in properly spacial terms" (126).

With that in mind, the notion of wrapping introduced in the beginning of this chapter begins to suggest the weird nature of postmodern space, which we've already characterized through a kind of loose and free-floating interaction of images against which it can be difficult to orient oneself. As Jameson describes, "As individuals, we are in and out of all these overlapping dimensions [of communication networks and late multinational capitalism] all the time, something which makes an older kind of existential positioning of ourselves in Being— the human body in the natural landscape, the individual in the older village or organic community, even the citizen in the nation-state— exceedingly problematical" (127)

This is a big problem, and one that you're probably intimately familiar with: we are almost constantly in contact with a bunch of global networks of exchange and communication that we can't really conceptualize. Because they're really big! But we interact with them constantly!

Importantly though, our inability to cognize these problems is not really an ontological or metaphysical problem: None of the individual parts of the network are fundamentally obscured to us. Most of them are actually pretty simple and mundane. It's just their sheer volume that makes them difficult (but again, crucially, not like metaphysically impossible) to conceptualize.

This, for Jameson, is a fundamentally spacial problem for which Gehry's house can be figured as a kind of solution—and here's where he's going to cash out the "minimal units of built space" stuff described above— through an allegorical read of the building: The corrugated metal sheets are a symbol of "the junk of Third World side of American life today" (128) hemming in the suburban home, which is in turn intersected by the "tumbling" glass cube, denoting "an inconceivable financial system and a combination of abstract wealth and real power in which all of us also believe, without many of us ever really knowing what that might be or look like" (128). So the house as a whole is this allegorical spatial schematic for this broader representation problem of "the two antithetical and incommensurable features...of abstract American space, of the superstate of multinational capitalism today" (128). The house is an allegory for this weird hybrid space of the postmodern.

He's got kind of a nice way for thinking through the "success" of this answer: "If that space is meaningful, if you can live in it, if it is somehow comfortable but in a new way, one that opens up historically new and original ways of living— and generates, so to speak, a new Utopian spatial language, a new kind of sentence, a new kind of syntax, radically new words beyond our own grammar— then, one would think, the dilemma, the aporia, has been resolved, if only on the level of space itself" (129).

Now that sounds pretty nice. And this is a fun and plausible read. I think I would still have questions about how exactly these elements can be said to "connote" their allegorical dimension here, and I guess I might also wonder whether what Jameson is really solving here is actually a representational or literary problem, just as he argues Macrae-Gibson was solving a perceptual or photographic one.

And while Jameson won't actually evaluate the success himself, it's worth considering what that success would mean more generally. The caveat that the "dilemma" will perhaps be resolved "only on the level of space itself" is a telling one, I think. Because even if it were effectively "solved," spatially, I don't know how it would get me any closer to understanding my individual relationship to the globally scaled machinations of late capitalism, which is still the problem for which this building is the supposed answer.

Maybe I'm being a little unfair. Maybe there is a necessarily self-contained and untranslatable quality to "thinking a material thought" (129), as he eloquently phrases it. I don't know. To me, again, this is an instance where we sort of see the trade off being made by this huge totalizing structure that he's put in place, where his individual analysis of specific works ends up being sort of unsatisfying, even if it is technically "correct" or internally consistent or whatever.

Anyway. It's a nice house! Wouldn't want to be the guy cleaning those windows though ha ha! Catch you next week.