Defying gravity: construction and deconstruction campaigns against gravity and their pitfalls

When even the gravitational field — geometry incarnate — becomes a non-commuting (and hence nonlinear) operator, how can the classical interpretation of  as a geometric entity be sustained? Now not only the observer, but the very concept of geometry, becomes relational and contextual.”

Sokal, A.D. (1996) ‘Transgressing the Boundaries: towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity’, Social Text, 46/47: 217-252

Not accepting the gravity of the situation

The so-called ‘Sokal Affair’ ridiculed the postmodernism critics of modernist science who, building upon literary deconstruction, were seemingly keen to show the relativity (and instability) of all knowledge. Sokal’s academic paper in a respected and peer reviewed postmodern journal wove postmodern theorists together in a way which seemed to argue (but actually didn’t quite) that gravity itself was a relative socio-cultural construct. Actually the paper was more subtle than that – and its chief mischief is actually that it didn’t really say anything at all.

But when planning the short essay that follows it seemed a good place to start. In contemporary folklore at least the Sokal paper ridicules postmodern relativity by suggesting that that journal’s reviewers and readership were happy to endorse a relativisation of gravity – an accusation that leaves open the prospect of the defying of gravity’s force by simply unmasking its socio-cultural and/or ideological nature. Taken this way – as a crude parody of deconstruction – the Sokal paper summons the impression of an intellectual campaign against gravity (and in doing so creates ridicule of postmodernist critiques of science: because clearly – as experienced in our daily lives – gravity is real and undeniable).

Having raised a chuckle at the absurdity of a (faked) intellectual campaign against gravity by deconstructionists, in this short piece I want to think about the phenomenon of the daily campaigns against gravity waged by constructionists on myriad building sites across the world.

Taking total possession of a site

Think about it. What happens shortly after a site is transformed into a building site via the erection of a boundary fence or hoarding? Scaffolding is what happens.

Scaffolding – and whether internally or externally – is set up in order to enable works access to areas of a site which are (literally) beyond the reach of ordinary inhabitation of that place. The ceilings and exterior walls of an existing building suddenly become surfaces that will feel the refurbishment touch of the builder. And where scaffolding cannot reach, other gravity defying access techniques will ensue, via ladders, roped access, cherry pickers. Increasingly this reaching for access to the totality of the site’s 3D space is technologically enhanced, using devices once thought of as science fiction: remote viewing through the eyes and flight of drones, or now as enabled by the Iron Man engineering of personal jet packs which are now being directly marketed for construction and engineering site applications.

A construction project is a campaign waged against space with material, labour and ideas against the vagaries of time, weather, stakeholders and finite finances. It is also a campaign against the limitations of gravity. That campaign requires a total – albeit temporary – acquisition and control of 3D space upon a site. It is not sufficient to occupy only the gravity dictated surfaces that future inhabitants will confine themselves to. Indeed, the very formation of those floors and walkways may only be possible via the temporary imposition upon the building envelope of numerous levels of scaffold, to form an infra-building – a distorted ghost image of the building yet to come.

The cost of defying gravity

The temporary campaign against gravity is necessary, but such gravity-defying structures come at considerable cost, and gravity’s urge to reassert its power, and the attendant limits to occupancy must not be treated lightly. Falls from height remain one of the most common types of accidents on construction sites in the UK – 47% of all fatal construction site accidents in 2019/20 (HSE 2020) and a variety of legal requirements apply to edge protection and a whole industry of consultants and engineering solutions providers exist to facilitate appropriate safety measures where-ever gravity is being defied on a site.

Meanwhile, in New York State the Labor Law 240(1) – otherwise known as the ‘Scaffold Law’ and which was originally enacted in 1885 as a response to accidents arising in the then-emerging skyscraper construction boom, in particular because the hoists being used to transport workers up the side of the buildings were proving to be unsafe – imposes strict liability upon all construction site operators who chose to defy gravity (see Powers & Sanola (2021)).  What this means is that if a construction worker is harmed by a “gravity risk” (which includes both a worker’s fall from hight and a worker being struck by an article dropped from height) then the site operator is liable regardless of whether or not they (or the worker) can be shown to have been careless in their gravity defying actions. As a New York court put it in ruling on an accident claim brought in 2009:

“[the]single decisive question is whether [the claimant’s] injuries were the direct consequence of a failure to provide adequate protection against the risk arising from a physically significant elevation differential” (quoted in Faley, 2010)

What is notable here is the explicit acknowledgment of gravity as a force to be reconned with – gravity becomes a character in the story of each accident (and each requirement to have prevented it). In contrast applicable UK legislation – like the Work at Height Regulations 2005 – concentrate more upon the health risk of falls and means of safeguarding, rather than picturing gravity itself as a force to be named and assuaged in construction site’s temporary campaigns to defy gravity in their total possession of their worksites.

But whether we give it a name or not gravity is a very real and sobering adversary in construction (and in deconstruction too).

Image Source: M.C. Escher (1953) Relativity https://www.wikiart.org/en/m-c-escher/relativity-lattice