Today’s quote comes from a rather unlikely source: Italian architectural theorist/historian Manfredo Tafuri. When you’re the son of two architects, as I am, you’re bound to see the world in architectural metaphors, with frequent recourse to concepts like ‘design’, ‘structure’, the ‘function/form’ dichotomy, ‘construction’, ‘assemblage’, and so on.
Earlier this summer I read Tafuri’s classic (and relatively short) text Architecture and Utopia, and I’ll be damned if it didn’t connect a great many dots for me. For Tafuri, as for his rough contemporary Louis Althusser (the [in]famous French Marxist philosopher), the development of ideology is never isolated from the various material processes which sculpt society: the constantly shifting urban landscape; the ever-expanding infrastructural apparatus (roads, public transportation, and now communication/information networks); the increasingly sophisticated and complex network of economic/financial systems; and the shifting state and functions of culture/art. That last one is especially important for me, as it links the production and consumption of art with all those other institutions and social phenomena that are more universally recognized as playing a decisive role in determining what exactly our present situation is. Indeed, arts such as architecture (and cinema, I’d argue) are not merely cultural phenomena regulated by ideology, which itself emerges from material conditions: arts such as architecture are examples of culture actively shaping our material environment. Thus, the circle is completed.
A propos of Guy Debord quote I posted yesterday, this quote from Tafuri’s Architecture and Utopia is a kind of intellectual dissection of avant-gardism (as both artistic practice and theory, specifically in its structuralist variation). It’s important to keep in mind that, like Debord, Tafuri was responding to many thinkers and schools of thought all at once; and like Debord, Tafuri is awfully pessimistic about the prospect of an artistic avant-garde truly capable of withdrawing from the various processes and power relations which both determine and undermine its subversive intentions. And, if it makes any difference to you, Tafuri is one of the best writers of theory I’ve ever read, something that I’m sure will become apparent if you take the time to read this quote.
A completely structuralist criticism, however, can never “explain” the sense of a work. It can do no more than “describe” it, since the only logic at its disposal is that based on yes-no, correct-incorrect, precisely analogous to the mathematical logic that guides the functioning of an electronic brain. […] In the era of the reproducibility of the work of art, the structure of the processes of its formation—even when a calculator does not intervene in its design—is governed by the logic of automation. The pictures Moholy-Nagy made on the telephone, in 1922, were not only prophecies of present-day procedures of programed assemblage in highly industrialized architecture, but also a complete clarification of the conditions of existence of a work of art that does not want to turn out to be—as Adorno would like—regressive utopia, “conscious” nonsense about its own alienation.
Thus there is but one contribution a consistent structuralism can offer to present-day architecture and art: the exact dimension of its own functionality in the universe of capitalist development, in the universe of integration.
[…] The “fall” of modern art is the final testimony of bourgeois ambiguity, torn between “positive” objectives and the pitiless self-exploration of its own objective commercialization. No “salvation” is any longer to be found within it: neither wandering restlessly in labyrinths of images so multivalent they end in muteness, nor enclosed in the stubborn silence of geometry content with its own perfection.