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Architect[e], writer, editor & podcaster

FOR AN ETHICS OF THE VISCOUS BODY / Too Much Magazine (2014)

Munari McLean Faustino

“For an Ethics of the Viscous Body: Munari, McLean, Faustino and…Spinoza,” in Too Much Magazine 5: Body in Space, Tokyo (Spring 2014)

Let us consider these images for a short moment. The first one is a series of photographs by Bruno Munari in 1944, whose title is as important as the work itself: Seeking comfort in an uncomfortable armchair. The second one was made a little later, in 1971, by Bruce McLean as part of a series called Plinths. This one in particular is the first of the series, Plinths I. Let us continue in the (conscious or not) chronology of these works with Didier Faustino’s Opus Incertum (2009) and Auto Satisfaction (with students in Georgia State University, 2009). These three works have all in common that they seem to consider the body as a sort of viscous matter that can embody various configurations in relation to the object on which this matter is falling (a chair, a cube or a sculpture). Viscous is a key word here as fluid would consider the body as a surface rather than a flesh assemblage. It seems that the body does not have any mechanical function that can negotiate with gravity but rather, it is a sort of viscous corpse that interacts with the volume of the object, yet cannot separate its parts one from another.

Introduced as such, one may not think that such operation of the body is something that could be considered as a manifesto of any kind. Embodying a “viscous corpse” is not exactly what one might look up to. As a matter of fact, we all have experienced a situation in which our body was continuously trying to find a comfortable position without ever finding it. If you tried to sleep on a rock, you know this feeling. There is however something in these situation that brings our body back to the most primal negotiation with its material environment. Most mammal animals — understood here as non-humans — do not design and construct objects that can serve their comfort, and they are therefore experiencing this situation on a daily basis. Observe a dog trying to find the appropriate territory to rest, for example. There is an intuitive effort to understand how to dispose of its material parts with the material environment.

Let us consider the philosophy established by Spinoza in his Ethics published after his death in 1677.[1] To put it in the language of the profane that I am, Spinoza envisions the world as a material substance (called God or nature), continuously subjected to the movement of its parts that form bodies (a planet, a tree, an animal etc.). Since the world is only constituted by this infinite substance, its particles are continuously encountering each other. Right now, for example, you are likely seating and the particles of your body are encountering the particles of the chair. These encounters can be detrimental to the composition of both bodies — let us not forget that we can cut butter, the knife also gets affected — in which case we will observe what we came to call violence. On the contrary, a body like ours can act on its parts to compose a harmonious relationship with the parts of the environment. Gilles Deleuze explains that by using the example of the wave by which we can be “slapped” or with which we can learn to move/swim.[2] Violent affects are called “sad” by Spinoza, while harmonious affects are called “joyful.”

The “viscous corpse” that I was evoking above is a position — or rather a quasi-infinite set of positions — that continuously negotiate with this environing matter, and therefore with the world in general. It can therefore be included in Spinoza’s ethics of joy. If we define architecture as the discipline that organizes the bodies in space, we understand that the architectural agenda should not consists in the happiness of the individual — always dangerous purpose when considered at a societal level — but rather, the joy of the bodies in the non-moralistic Spinozist sense. One should absolutely refrain from thinking of this ethics as a synonym of comfort. On the contrary, comfort is a state for which the presence of the material environment disappears. The paroxysm of comfort probably lies in the state of free falling for which, only the light particles of air are in contact of the body. There is a fundamental problem with ethics/politics of comfort. It is easy to understand that the very idea of comfort is, by definition, not compatible with the political struggle. A look at the Palestinian bourgeoisie that seems to embrace the status quo of the occupation, to the point of constructing buildings that looks like the Israeli civil settlements in the West Bank can serve as an example. Besides the political problems triggered by comfort, there is also a biological one.

In 1800, French anatomist and physiologist Xavier Bichat revolutionized the interpretation of life by defining it as the “set of functions that resists death.”[3] Before him, life was imagined as a process that was interrupted by death. Thanks to his work, we envision death as a continuous process that life persists struggling against until it has to finally give-up. If death constitutes an irremediable process acting on any given body, we cannot help but notice empirically that this process is not operating as fast on every body: there is therefore for each body an acceleration or deceleration of the death process at work. At each moment, through its relationship with the material environment, our body is thus either seeing its death process accelerating or decelerating. Something will be said to be toxic when its encounter with the body leads to an acceleration of the process. On the contrary, something will be said to be healthy when its encounter with the body leads to a deceleration of the process. Comfort might not be considered as violent at an immediate level, yet, in its refusal to strengthen the body, it can be considered as toxic. It is therefore design’s responsibility to provide material conditions that are neither violent nor comfortable, but rather joyful as such conditions will undertake to decelerate the death process as the work of Shuzaku Arakawa and Madeline Gins have been expressing for a few decades now.[4] Their architecture, materialized in few occasions, is built for the body to continuously accomplish the act of “not-dying.” In the terminology of the ethics described here, this means to decelerate the death process to an utopian minimal speed. In terms of design, this imply for each architectural/design element to be serving this very purpose.

In the case of the three artists we started with, there is an interesting chronology to observe between them: Munari uses his body to subvert the (apparently unsuccessful) essential goal of his chair, McLean uses cubes in a similar assignment but the abstraction of the object makes it less ‘intentioned’ and more abstract than the chair. Faustino goes one step further with Auto Satisfaction as he composes a sort of objectal landscape that does not correspond anymore to an archetype, yet brings a complexity that the cubes did not. This chronology is therefore an invitation, not only to subvert the various normalized archetype that continuously surrounds us, but further, to design objects and architectures that do not carry in themselves a presupposed functional position of the body, but encourage the latter to acquire the degree of viscous body as a joyful ethics.

NOTES:

[1] Baruch Spinoza, Ethics, New York: Penguin Classics, 2005.

[2] Gilles Deleuze. Sur Spinoza, Cours Vincennes, March 17, 1981.

[3] Bichat Xavier. Physiological Researches Upon Life and Death. Philadelphia: Smith & Maxwell, 1809.

[4] See for example Shuzaku Arakawa and Madeline Gins, Reversible Destiny: We have decided not to die, New York: Abrams, Inc., 1997., and Arakawa and Madeline Gins, Architectural Body, Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 2002.