Subterranean Architectonics, The Vicissitudes of Verticality and a Crisis within Vision

June 10, 2011

At a recent workshop on ‘Science Fiction in the Present: Military Technology and Contemporary Culture‘, an interesting tension emerged between the spectacle of a kind of military-techno-porn (mostly focusing upon developments in drone technology and autonomous killing machines) and a much more banal or subliminal militarisation of the quotidian. Despite a level of moral outcry, a sense of awe still permeated certain presentations and their focus upon the autonomous agents of war. Largely this was a fascinating day, although what remained a little disappointing—beyond the all-male panel’s perhaps inevitable descent into the role of guys talking about big guns—was the way that the notion ‘Science-Fiction in the the Present’ was thought almost exclusively in terms of technology as a gift from the future or an appearance out of time (most clearly exemplified in Noel Sharkey‘s use of Terminator 2). It would have been nice to hear more on the notion of science-fiction without futurity that the title also seemed to propose. Here I’m thinking specifically of Deleuze’s claim, in the introduction to Difference and Repetition, that philosophy should be a kind of science fiction, and perhaps more loosely the recent discussion on ‘the ontological status of fictions‘—a kind of science fiction in the present, a science fiction without futurity, that concerns itself with ontological speculation within the present, contemporaneous or universal.

Beyond a certain fascination with the spectacle of warfare, two interesting threads emerged from the presentations, focusing on (1) subterranean architectonics and what is perhaps most easily summarised as (2) the vicissitudes of verticality or a crisis within vision, both of which see spatial organisation take on a more ‘horizontal’ organisation, an orientation that in its most idealised form suggests a flat, non-hierarchized or at the very least highly contested, ambiguous or smooth space, to be contrasted with the hegemony and hierarchy ascribed—within this simplified and idealised schema—to verticality (perhaps most clearly laid out in Ballard’s Highrise, wherein the floor each resident lives on correlates precisely with their social status and power within the organisation of the tower). This latter thread was perhaps most clearly expressed in Stephen Graham‘s paper on ‘Cyberpunk imaginaries in the new military urbanism’. This opposition between orders is clearly too simple, but I’ll come back to this point below. Discussion of both the vicissitudes of verticality and the crisis within vision dealt with the difficulty that state military technologies have in dealing with ground level insurgency where no visible distinction can be made between the peaceful citizen and the insurgent. I’ll come back to what I found interesting about this latter point; firstly I’d like to address a couple of points that came out of John Beck’s discussion of subterranean and bunker architectures.

1. Subterranean Architectonics

John Beck focused upon bunkers, their creation, excavation and their role in sci-fi films. Amidst the various points brought up, I was drawn to the question of what it is that drives these sci-fi narratives underground, towards subterranean dwellings and societies? Perhaps a wet—or rather subnaturally dank—dream of experimental potential and absolute architectonic synthesis, a movement beneath the surface to a realm where the established order and contingencies of the surface do not apply?

The production of subterranean space is depicted—according to the particular catastrophes of countless dystopian futures—as sustaining life against constant siege, whether in a common sense of warfare or from a more subliminal barrage in the form of nuclear radiation, solar storms, scorched earth, toxic airs or diseases (some of which were discussed in Mark Dorrian‘s Weather Control) which have come to dominate the surface which, in these dystopian futures, becomes populated not but somatic beings but by forces that entail the extinguishment and exhaustion of all life. Life is driven underground and the surface is abandoned as a space dominated by death. While burrowing under the earth becomes necessary—in these future scenarios—to escape terrestrial calamity—nuclear impositions of either the sun or waring nation states, solar economy or meteorological imposition—there is also a certain ‘liberatory’ dream that is manifest in the movement underground, that of the total state, the possibility of absolute organisation amidst a new subterranean thickness not yet rendered transparent, granted through a degree of freedom from terrestrial contingencies, a ‘freedom’ that must nonetheless be mined. Here the bunker retains its importance within the architectural aesthetics of late Modernism while maintaining the ongoing search for a ‘totalitarian smoking gun’ within this field of aesthetic and architectonic production (Owen Hatherley, ‘Fossils of Time Future’. Collapse VI, 236). In addition to the preservation of life, retreat underground permits a state of autonomy, distinct from the established regulatory contingencies of the surface, an attainment of autonomy permissive of an absolute state, attainable only through absolute architectural control. Hollowed out and sealed off from the surface, the underground permits a purely synthetic environment, a space of total control, the absolute realisation of architectural freedom in the form of an emancipation from the regulatory rhythms of the solar system. The dissolution of circadian regulation entailed in a movement underground permits an otherwise unrealisable plasticity of time, permitting total bio-chemical control of the human organism and regulation beyond the incumbent contingencies of the surface, subject as it is to meteorological imposition and dynamics, the chronology and rhythmical regulation of a solar system. The movement beneath ground has not only architectural implications—where this discipline is conceived as the production of purely exosomatic forms—but also has implications for a more complex Theatre of Production, the production of an environment that entails processual individuations due to the contingent relationship that exists between individual and the spatio-temporal dynamisms of the built environment. The total design of the subterranean environment entails an endosomatic or extimate determination, a modulation of bodies both organic and architectonic through the conditioning of airs and atmospheres in general that are required if life is to survive its plutonic incarceration.

The preliminary stages of this architectonic liberation from the solar system or the contingencies of the surface was in part ascribed to the work of Frank Lloyd Wright’s work by Fernández-Galiano, who opposes this work to that of Le Corbusier’s, specifically the latter’s submission to a distinctly solar organisation: ‘To Le Corbusier, the sun is a luminous and regular sign that normalises and organises the life of human beings. To Wright, the sun is more heat than it is light, a beginning more than a regulator, a factor of change rather than of stability. His is a warm, chaotic, igneous sun: a cosmic fire’ (Fernández-Galiano, Fire and Memory, 29). A generative dynamics of terrestrial combustion opposed to the organisational, regulatory rhythms of the solar system; Wright’s fire is not exclusively terrestrial but associated with both depth and internality: ‘The fire is not only present in the centre of the house but burns “deep in the masonry of the house itself”‘ (Fire and Memory, 29)—as in Jacobs II. The fire embedded within the building links depth with both vitalistic concerns and functions, a metaphorical and actual maintenance of life beneath the surface, set apart from the exterior, yet set apart less from the world than from the solar system. The opposition of a regulatory and igneous sun, a solar system and a cosmic fire, ‘links Le Corbusier’s brise-soleil to a respectable architectural tradition of buildings governed by the stars […] and there is little doubt that Wright’s chimneys invoke a no less archaic tradition in which the fire is the soul of the house and the city, a symbol of fertility and life, a sacred and beneficent flame” (Fernández-Galiano, Fire and Memory, 31). Wright’s fire is set apart from Le Corbusier’s light, thermic, intensive capacity set apart from the transparent medium of (pan)optical regulation, terrestrial combustion set apart solar organisation. Here a thermic insurgency distributes itself across the surface before burrowing into the darkness of plutonic depths, away from the transparent clarity afforded by the solar system. Despite liberation from the terrestrial subjectivity to the solar system, this movement underground readily sees the establishment of an equally oppressive chthonic regime. The totalitarian dream of a chthonic time capsule sees the elite buried alive as life retreats underground to escape any number of tropospheric catastrophes, their inhumation marking less expiry and extinction than the planting of a seed that at some point will remerge to claim the surface and establish an elite terrestrial order, once again under the sign of the sun and subject to another star.

Within Fernández-Galiano’s schema fire is opposed to light and, by extension, heat opposed to sight. Positioned in critical relation to the role of sight and the clarity of light within the ideology of the enlightenment, favouring a localised, internal combustion set apart from the organising light of the solar system positions political and architectonic productions in darkness, away from the rationality, reason and optical control structures ascribed to sight and afforded by the clarity of light. In this sense Fernández-Galiano’s thermic  insurgency is blind, it is opposed to the “luminous and regular sign” of the sun. Both cosmic fire and localised combustion are conceived as primarily thermal rather than optical; in its opposition to the sign of the sun a thermal insurgency is set apart from the clarity of vision and associated with a certain dynamic darkness allied with the chaotic energy of an igneous sun and the internalisation of a cosmic fire, shunning organisational normalisation attained through the imposition of an apparent transparency that constitutes only the efficacy of an ideological order.

2. The Vicissitudes of Verticality and a Crisis within Vision

This movement from an optical organisation to thermal combustion mirrors a shift from vertical organisation to horizontal movements, from the stratification of verticality to the destratifying decompositions of horizontal slippages and subsidence. Insurgency forces a loss of vertical domination and the disorganisation—if not dissolution—of ubiquitous, centralised vision. Here we can recall the Iranian Green Revolution were, rather than a dissolution of the dominance of visual domination it was a decentralisation and diffusive distribution of vision within globalised electonic infrastructure of an ‘auditory space’ that proved one of the greatest threats to the state. Through this disorganisation and decentralisation vision is forced to pass into the acoustic or ‘auditory space’—understood in McLuhan’s sense as a space defined as a ‘field of simultaneous relations without centre or periphery’—afforded by the electromagnetic medium that subsists amidst its infrastructure or conditions. The horizontal orientation and disorganisation of thermic insurgency and ‘sonic warfare’—characterised as such according to its instantiation, production and execution within ‘auditory space’—driven by the localised combustion of an igneous sun, effects the collapse of verticality and the instantiation of an extremely ambiguous power that manifests only the conditions or potential for architectonic experimentation yet to be actualised. This abstract battle space is thought as occurring within a spatial organisation that McLuhan would describe as auditory, and by means of a concordant notion of sonic warfare (somewhat distinct from Goodman‘s use of the term), in the sense that both its targets, objects and tactics remain abstract, with force applied in general due to a loss of discretion. Where the insurgent or target remains invisible it cannot be identified as a specific individual, and therefore thermal mass or the collective auditory expression of a crown are read as the signature of the target without a face. In assertions against the solar system, the shift from an ideological edifice wherein “the sun is a luminous and regular sign that normalises and organises”, movements towards localised combustion and the intensive thermic productions of an igneous sun are mirrored in a shift towards the the dark ambiguity of the invisible, towards wavelengths at the extremities of and beyond the visible. In this sense there is no surprise in The Invisible Committee’s composition of The Coming Insurrection. Thermal organisation in its opposition to optical imposition occupies a portion of the invisible, or rather its internal and obscure differentiations cannot be determined through optical representations operating according the sign of the sun. This is the threat of insurgency,  a disorganisation of vision that unfolds in the nightmare of contemporary urban warfare, manifest in a loss of vertical domination (death from above) as imagined by the mechanical infrastructure or cold war ideology. Insurgency forces a shift from the distinct, visual space of the battle field—that obeys distinct lines and a discrete organisation of engagement combined with a moral code of visible, uniform identification—to the generalised ambiguity of a contemporary urban ‘battle space’ that is at best blurry if not invisible or indistinct from the quotidian and civil, unfolding or irrupting in the middle of the home or marketplace before dissolving once again into the everyday (see Weizmann‘s discussion of the IDF’s (de)construction of a smooth space throughout the heart of the Gaza strip). The loss of the visible discretion of the battle field, disorganising horizontalism, decentralisation and the chaotic redistribution or diffusion of total vision forces vision to negotiate the invisible spatiality of a thermic insurgency or ‘sonic warfare‘—after McLuhan—wherein the invisible and unidentifiable insurgent, refusing to move along lines of sight, necessitates a non- or omni-directional ‘sonorous’ imposition in order to deal with a generalised and invisible insurgency wherein the civil and quotidian is militarised. Counter insurgency attempts to reinstate the order of verticality and the centrality of total vision in the form of either vertical domination (death from above) or the discrete organisation characteristic of the primarily visual space it occupies, constructs and enforces under the transparent sign of the sun.

Yet this idealisation of the horizontal movements and (dis)organisation of insurgency is too simple, its insufficiencies becoming clear where it is allied with the broadly invisible against vision, as such assertions submit to the transhistorical idealisation of not only the senses but mediums in general as well as structural and spatial orientations. The invisible and horizontal is idealised as a smooth and hierarchically flat space, yet it teems with blockages, interceptions, dead-ends and delays, operations that on one hand constantly assert and impose power while at the same time undermining it towards the imposition of a new order. Where this imposition, organisation and structuration is undermined ad-infinitum towards the establishment of a permanent insurgency it leads only to catastrophe and death. The ideological flaws in the opposition between light and fire, the horizontal and vertical, and the visual and acoustic become clearer when considered in relation to a generalised version of Jonathan Sterne’s critique of the ‘audiovisual litany [which] idealises hearing […] as manifesting a kind of pure interiority. It alternately denigrates and elevates vision […] vision takes us out of the wold. But it also bathes us in the clear light of reason’ (The Audible Past, 15). From Sterne’s critique of the transhistorical idealisation of audition we can excise the form of an argument against the sufficiency of both internality and the intensity of immanence, as this is manifest in the vitalistic privileging of heat over light in Fernandez-Galiano’s work, and the idealisation of a ‘rhizomatic’ horizontality as state of perpetual and hierarchically neutral connectivity to be sustained in a state of universal and eternal anarchy. We can extend this critique into the idealisation of the tactics of insurgency through applying it to Michel de Certeau’s distinction between strategy and tactics, where the former names the operations of the state, total centralised vision, visual discretion, vertical organisation and imposition, while the latter is to be identified with the intuitive and immanent  horizontality that defines the movements or ‘flows’ of the pedestrian or the insurgent across the surface of the earth. As Weizmann has shown, the state apparatus is only too happy to move and assert itself in a similar fashion through an interpretation of abstract tactics, just as ‘typographic man’ is well rehearsed in transcribing order from the noise and confusion of auditory space. What is required to add the necessary complexity to these distinctions is acknowledgement of militarisation of the everyday that sees state control and capital readily bend towards an occupation, exploitation, appropriation and commodification of the invisible, of that which attempts to move sideways effecting constant displacement and subsidence amidst incessant articulations of sedimentation and stratification. Against the spectacle of warfare, the militarisation of the everyday, the banal and quotidian exerts a subtle influence in a space more complex than that allowed in the simplistic division between, on the one hand, vertical and visual imposition and, on the other, horizontal displacement and an acoustical or ‘organic’ nodal emergence; Within the smooth there exist blockages, stoppages and interceptions, subtle and informative interruptions within the apparent uniformity of the everyday; an ideological imposition that asserts itself and attains utmost efficacy in invisibility.

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One Response to “Subterranean Architectonics, The Vicissitudes of Verticality and a Crisis within Vision”

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