Lashed to the world: exploring building services with Slavoj Žižek

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“Inside and Outside never cover the entire space: there is always an excess of a third space which gets lost in the division into Outside and Inside. In human dwellings, there is an intermediate space which is disavowed: we all know it exists, but we do not really accept its existence – it remains ignored and (mostly) unsayable. The main content of this invisible space is excrement (canalization), but also the complex network of electricity, digital links, etc. – all this is contained in narrow spaces between walls or floors.” (Žižek 2009)

So writes Slavoj Žižek in a rather rambling rumination ranging across class struggle and post modern architecture. But it is in a few corners of this piece that he touches on something that I find worth exploring here: his passing ruminations on the ‘invisible’ zones and elements of everyday buildings. This is a preoccupation that has been hovering in my posts this year as – amongst others – I’ve pondered the narrow spaces between walls and corridors to café restrooms. In these I’ve come close to echoing Žižek’s desire for:

“a house composed only of secondary spaces and places of passage – stairs, corridors, toilets, store-rooms, kitchen – with no living room or bedroom.”

But, in this essay I want to chase infrastructural conduits around one of my University’s campuses and think about how their necessary invisibilities lash to the world their more prominent cousin features. For, without these silent ‘services’, we would be lost.

I came to the Žižek essay very recently courtesy of Amanda Crawley Jackson, and it’s helped me to pull together the following reflections on an explore that took place a few months before I encountered Žižek’s thoughts on interstitial space and the spandrel.

A spandrel is an area, form or thing created by the occurrence of something else. Byproducts and wastes are an example – think plastic sprues from which model kit pieces are harvested and you have the idea. The word is architectural in origin: a spandrel is the portion of masonry sitting at the top of a column, the edges of which are the arch. The arch is seen, intended – it is foregrounded – but the attendant spandrel is ‘invisible’. It is ‘background’ to the arch and its profile. But the arch would not exist without its dull hinterland of stonework.

Chasing flows and conduits on campus
We were sitting in a room, gathered here at the end of term to discuss the variety of ways in which our teaching and research practices interrogate space and place. I’d travelled to my University’s ‘other’ campus for this session. Day in, day out I’m based in a dense, high-rise cluster of modern(ist) buildings in the centre of the city. But today I was sitting in an older building, with the ambience of a cottage hospital, set amidst the rolling green lawns, trees and winding paths of my University’s suburban campus.

We set aside an hour to each go out and investigate this space, and to bring back that which interested us and which reflected our methodologies. Sitting listening to my colleague wind up the morning session, I still hadn’t decided what I’d focus on. Looking beyond him, towards the doorway, its signage, automatic closure armature, its safety glass and the pipes and wiring conduits that also leaving our room near this point, an idea started to build, round about the time that he uttered the words “Foucault was attentive to the materiality of power.”

Stepping out into the courtyard I started photographing the fire-escapes, struck by their (physically and functionally) ‘bolted-on’ nature. I thought I might focus upon the way in which anxieties about fire safety have mapped out on-top of this pre-existing configuration of buildings and uses, but then I started to notice – smaller but ubiquitous – the sinews of black cabling held fast to the sides of these pre-electric buildings and the fistula by which these black lines wormed their way into, and out of, these buildings. Then I saw spider-like partners, clinging to the sides of these walls. Erratic, bifurcating vertical runs of pipes clinging to these stone surfaces.

I set out to follow these strange emergent connectors – tendrils binding detached buildings to each other as an assembly of indeterminant purpose. Tracing these features around the nooks and crannies of this raggedy estate found moments of bold leap, where cabling flew through the air from gully to gully, and strange gathering points at which multiple lines congregated, perhaps awaiting their turn to go inside in conformity to some unobservable rules of physics, a bottle neck or electron marshalling yard.

I also followed the cables as they burst through from the outside, switching from their black form to interior-white. I traced their paths via strange junction boxes, their dives into internal walls and most satisfying (for me – and I’d like to think for them too) their moment of eventual congress with a device requiring their power or data.

I’m told that many of the cables playing through the sky at this campus are – in fact – now redundant, with most data relayed around the estate via microwave transmitters. Perhaps it all lingers on simply because there’s nothing to be gained in taking them all down.

On being connected
Reflecting on the fascination that this web-like interconnection of buildings via these black cables summoned to mind got me thinking about a number of pictures in which supposedly separate items are connected into a group or family via web-like connections. I thought of doodling, that drive (maybe not everyone has it) to totalise individual doodles, by joining them together into an array across the page, or the techno-human assemblages of psychiatric patients, or corporate organograms.

The image here is scanned from the cover to a 1981 LP by SPK (the Australian industrial noise band, sometimes more fulsomely monikered Sozialistisches Patienten Kollektiv) the painting – which I’ve been unable to trace by any 21st century type and click methods – is attributed to a “R. Gie”, a patient at Rosegg Sanitorium in Switzerland in 1916 and entitled “Circulation of Effluvia with Central Machine and Metric Tableau”.

Gie (1916)
This patient’s depiction of all elements being wired together has both a disturbing, horror effect (think the body farm pods from The Matrix for example) and yet also a logic if you stop to think about it. As for Žižek and for Gie, we can’t escape the fact of our effluent related interconnections with mechanical systems and the senses of others. We also are enmeshed in a web of electro-mechanical power, as Jane Bennett (2010) – no relation – has shown in her analysis of “thing-power” (the agency of assemblages), with specific reference to electricity systems and their volatile assemblage of “humans and their (social, legal, linguisitic) constructions [and][…] some very active and powerful nonhumans: electrons, trees, wind, fire, electromagnetic fields.” (24)

Foucault certainly took a broader view of power than convention had dictated – seeing it as a force (fluid like) circulating in situations to enable or retard action, things to appear or positions to be framed and sustained. But perhaps he could have gone even further, to make the link between ‘social’ power and electrical / gas / water power. The full panoply of circulating, and life sustaining forces, and of the culturally ‘invisible’ spandrel empire that provides the infrastructure for this mechanical circulation and servicing of power.

To spend a lunchtime chasing conduits and cables on campus is to follow Alice down the rabbit hole and find there not a cartoon otherworld, but rather the arteries and tendrels of the vast web of interstitial spaces that anchor us – and our buildings – to the world.

References

Bennett, J. (2010) Vibrant matter – a political ecology of things, Duke University Press: London.
Žižek, S. (2009) ‘Architectural Parallax – Spandrels and Other Phenomena of Class Struggle’ at http://www.lacan.com/essays/?page_id=218

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About lukebennett13
Reader & Course Leader, BSc Hons Real Estate, Sheffield Hallam University, UK. I TEACH: built environment law to construction, surveying, real estate and environmental management students. I RESEARCH: metal theft; urban exploration & recreational trespass; occupiers' perceptions of liability for their premises. I THINK: about the links between ideas, materialities and practices in the built environment. I WAS: an environmental lawyer working in commercial practice for 17 years before I joined academia in 2007. I EXPLAIN: the aims of my blogsite site here: https://lukebennett13.wordpress.com/2012/02/15/prosaic/ LINKS: Twitter: @lukebennett13; Archive: http://shu.academia.edu/lukebennett. EPITAPH: “He lived at a little distance from his body, regarding his own acts with doubtful side-glances.” James Joyce, Dubliners

11 Responses to Lashed to the world: exploring building services with Slavoj Žižek

  1. dobraszczyk says:

    Great post, Luke. I guess I spent a long time thinking about this when working on sewers. When first conceived, infrastructure (particularly water pipes and sewers) was readily compared with the arteries and veins of human bodies (derived from Harvey’s theories of blood circulation). Whenever I see one of those boxes of fibre-optic cables opened up on the street, the multitude of wires now reminds me of the brain. We need bodily metaphors to connect us with infrastructure, even if they make us feel uncomfortable. Also, with sewers, there’s a certain horror of interconnection – the notion that, with citywide sewers, excrement becomes concentrated and undifferentiated – a sign of social disintegration in one sense and too much connection in another.

    • Thanks Paul – I did start thinking about sewers and your work as I worked up the Alice metaphor, but decided to hold back on taking my piece underground. But – yes, I agree. What you have added completes that mapping splendidly, following the spandrels back into interstitial ground.

  2. Brilliant! I now know that I’m going to start noticing these arteries and tendrils a lot more. Also interesting point about wireless connectivity and body metaphors. I suppose these material data cables will ‘evolve’ out of building design becoming the equivalent of the vestigial human tail.

  3. Thanks for this, esp. “spandrel empire.”

    About Foucault, this is a very San Francisco subject, so who knows what he might have considered while visiting over our way?

    San Francisco is specially conscious of its conduits due to the 1906 earthquake/fire and its reliance on distant Sierra sources of water and power (lately reemphasized – see http://abclocal.go.com/kgo/story?section=news/local/san_francisco&id=9235219 ). Historically minded citizens honor the Dolores Park hero fire hydrant every April 18 with a fresh coat of gold paint: http://sfist.com/2011/04/18/scene_from_a_freshened_up_golden_hy.php

    Also, San Francisco has climate and history conducive to exterior wires and pipes. Especially in formerly working-class districts like Foucault’s sometime stomping grounds South of Market. This is a Google Street View example from the notorious Dore Alley off Folsom: http://goo.gl/maps/K4h68 . More typical SF Edwardian structures, tho in other parts of the city, appear with their wires and pipes in drawings by Paul Madonna — the son of a gifted builder who, he says, could design structures in his head without having to draft plans. See e.g. https://www.paulmadonna.com/purchase/prints/all_over_coffee.php?category_id=3&file=536 .

    • Thanks Martha – a great set of images tumble to mind: worshiping of fire hydrants! Reminds me of the folk tradition of well-dressing in remote parts of the British Isles, and of shinto shrines, lovely!

  4. Yes, something special about honoring a fire hydrant as a character in the city’s story.

  5. Pingback: On staring at stuff in a weird way: ethnographic surrealism and psychogeography as connectors to everyday matter | lukebennett13

  6. Pingback: Back to the wall, back to the cave, back to the edge: three re-visits for 2016 | lukebennett13

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